Fri, Jul 01, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan and the South China Sea

By Richard Pearson

Not that any reminder was needed, but the recent confrontations in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, and the subsequent street demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, highlight for all observers that long---simmering tensions in the waters off Southeast Asia are on the verge of boiling over. Diplomats and officials in Beijing, Hanoi and Manila engaged in a round of accusations, protests and denials. Even usually quiet Singapore was prompted to call on China to clarify its territorial claims.

Taiwan, meanwhile, reiterated its position, emphasizing its sovereignty over the contested territory. According to a June 15 statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “the Nansha Islands (南沙群島), the Shisha Islands (西沙群島), the Chungsha Islands (中沙群島) and the Tungsha Islands (東沙群島), as well as their surrounding waters, seabeds and subsoil, are all an inherent part of the territory of the Republic of China (Taiwan).” Moreover, on Wednesday last week, as reported by the Central News Agency, Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy Yang (楊進添) spoke of increasing military patrols on Taiwan-held islands.

Odd as it may seem, given their history of animosity, the South China Sea territorial claims of the governments of China and Taiwan are nearly identical. Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) base their modern-day claims on the so-called “nine-dotted” or “U-shaped” line visible on maps issued by the then-Nanjing-based ROC government in 1947.

In the years since 1947, the ROC has issued periodic statements regarding its claims. In 1993, the ROC asserted sovereignty over the bulk of the South China Sea including the Spratlys, Pratas and Paracels. In 1995, Taipei reiterated its claim to the “U-shaped line” and initiated construction on Itu Aba Island (太平島) in the Spratlys despite longstanding territorial claims to the tiny island by the Philippines, Vietnam and China. The ROC’s position has not changed in any fundamental way in the years since 1947, while Taiwan and its region have evolved and developed dramatically.

Hewing today to the 1947 nine-dotted line claim imposes a needless liability on modern-day Taiwan. Taiwan needs good relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Democratic Taiwan wants to — and should — be perceived as a responsible international actor both in Asia and globally. The excessive maritime claims embodied by the 1947 claim, however, fly in the face of this. Taipei’s continued adherence to China’s maritime territorial claims is inimical to Taiwan’s long-term regional and international interests.

By holding to outdated and legally untenable claims, Taiwan risks alienating its ASEAN neighbors while its already deep economic ties to them continue to grow. By siding with Beijing on the excessive maritime claims inherited from 1947, an already-isolated Taipei risks alienating neighbors that are increasingly wary of China and which could potentially become more sympathetic to Taiwan.

Taiwan now has, in the choppy waters of the South China Sea, an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to international harmony and become a constructive force for regional stability. Taipei ought to modify its maritime territorial claims in a manner that is both more acceptable to its Southeast Asian neighbors and in accordance with international law.

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