Fri, Jul 01, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan and the South China Sea

By Richard Pearson

Taiwan would be wise to adopt a modified claim based on the 200 nautical mile limit as enunciated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in its definition of exclusive economic zones. Such an arrangement has been put forward by Jon Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii. By adopting this stance, Taipei would be able to maintain a claim to a substantial portion of the South China Sea, while stepping back from those territorial claims that are particularly aggressive, ambitious and intellectually offensive to its neighbors. Doing so would also bring Taipei’s positions — unlike those of Beijing — into compliance with international law and the UNCLOS.

Importantly, such a modification of its maritime territorial claims would not constitute a wholesale renunciation of Taiwan’s interests in the South China Sea. Under the proposed arrangement, Taiwanese naval forces as well as its commercial shipping interests would continue to enjoy access to and passage through the South China Sea. In negotiating a more reasonable position with Vietnamese and Philippine authorities, Taiwan would have the opportunity to safeguard its oil, gas and fishing interests in the South China Sea.

Surely these interests would be better served by a harmonious South China Sea than by one fraught with confrontations, as is the case at present. Moreover, this arrangement need not entail withdrawal of ROC forces from Itu Aba and other islands. Sovereignty over islands can be negotiated between claimant states at a future date, once the ROC steps away from its legally spurious claim to the entire sea.

Much more importantly, given Beijing’s standing threat of a military response to a move toward Taiwanese independence, it would not constitute and could not reasonably be construed as constituting such a move by Taipei. There may be some concerns that Beijing would react militarily to such an adjustment of the ROC’s territorial claims.

However, history indicates otherwise. Just as former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) unofficially abandoned the ROC’s claim to China in 1991, Taipei today could all-but-officially adopt a more reasonable and conciliatory policy toward the South China Sea. Beijing would surely engage in hysterics for some time, but these would eventually pass.

A more regionally accommodating, legally defensible and internationally acceptable de facto position on the South China Sea could be presented as Taipei promoting a foreign policy more mature, more realistic and more regionally accommodating than that emanating from Beijing.

Furthermore, Taiwan’s tacit adoption of a modified claim could also help to move the dialogue between China and Southeast Asia forward. Not only would it put pressure on Beijing to adopt a position more acceptable to its neighbors, but Taipei’s decision to make the first move could provide Beijing with a face-saving way of backing away from its current claims.

Taiwan has in the South China Sea dispute an opportunity to take the high road and to upstage Beijing in the eyes and esteem of a wary Southeast Asia and an anxious world.

Taiwan’s military forces are not and will never be the deciding factor in any large-scale confrontation over the rocks, islands and reefs of the South China Sea. Any decision by Taiwan to modify its position would therefore be largely symbolic. Nevertheless, it would send an important signal to its Southeast Asian neighbors, to the international community and to Beijing. And in international relations, signals do matter.

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