On March 23, the China (Taiwan) Society of International Law (CSIL) formally submitted its position paper on the legal status of Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) to the Philippines versus the People’s Republic of China (PRC) proceeding at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The court would soon clarify the legal status of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) as islands or rocks, including Taiping, which has been under Taiwan’s effective control consistently since 1946.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), a Harvard-educated lawyer, is also a past president of CSIL, a current board member and the editor of its English-language yearbook. Obviously, the CSIL has kept pace with Ma’s South China Sea policy.
The Ma-CSIL position resonates eerily with that of the PRC, though it makes technical sense in international law, especially under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Both the Republic of China’s (ROC) “11-dash line” and the PRC’s “nine-dash line” have been used to rationalize China’s de jure jurisdiction in the South China Sea.
Notably, the paper submission gives the ROC no significant benefit because the UNCLOS is merely the basis of determining lawful use and control of the sea given sovereign territories of states, not the title of them, involving no legal effect on the ROC’s sovereignty claim over Taiping.
On the contrary, the submission only benefits the PRC claim’s that Taiwan, which exercises the effective control over Taiping, is a part of its territory. No wonder US President Barack Obama’s administration in January expressed profound displeasure with Ma’s one-day visit to Taiping, with his intent to reinforce the ROC’s region-wide claimant status there.
The ROC has no significant economic interests in retaining Taiping. Located far from the main island of Taiwan, its fishing boats do not operate in the waters around the Spratlys in general and Taiping in particular.
Certainly, there is some great potential in oil and natural gas reserves beneath the seabed, but the ROC and its private sector do not have sufficient technology and capital for exploration and development. It might be possible to earn through granting concessions to foreign developers, but would necessarily be entangled in intense political battles with competing claimants, involving significant military risks. It is simply not worth committing such risks, given the ROC’s weak international legal standing and lack of diplomatic recognition.
Militarily, Taiping appears indefensible against possible PRC invasion. In wartime, it would not be feasible to dispatch ROC naval surface combatants there without air cover, while subjected to the PRC’s significant submarine warfare capability.
Fully aware of this limitation, the ROC only deploys limited coast guard defense forces as a token of its effective control. True, the US plays the sole security guarantor role for the people of Taiwan, but its ambiguous yet significant security commitment will probably not be extended to the defense of Taiping, except under peculiar circumstances.
Apparently, Taiping for the ROC is a liability, rather than an asset, but the ROC must neither give up its de jure claim nor effective control over it. The ROC’s unilateral move to change its de jure territory would unnecessarily provoke the PRC to insist on the ROC’s observance of the so-called “1992 consensus” and “one China, different interpretations” framework.
At best, it could hollow out its effective control, for example, by reducing the size of the defense force there and/or downgrading its defense capability, while holding the de jure claim.
President-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has to be fully aware of the rapidly increasing uncertainty on Northeast Asian security environment in general and Taiwan’s security in particular.
This is shown well by the fact that, in concluding the third Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation last year, even Japan for the first time took strong initiatives out of the fear of abandonment by the US.
Contrastingly, in the cases of the first and second Guidelines of 1978 and 1997, Japan reacted rather reluctantly due to the fear of entrapment with a US-initiated global war against the Soviet Union and a major post-Cold War regional war.
Japan’s concern is well warranted by growing populist impulse and isolationist mood in US society, as demonstrated of the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential candidate, which casts doubt on US security commitment to East Asia.
To make matters worse, now entrapped in a sharp economic downturn, the PRC may become more prone to coercion, violence and possibly aggression at a time when its regime may be forced to divert rapidly growing popular discontent to external issues. Doing so is particularly easy by manipulating nationalistic sentiments through territorial questions. The PRC’s recent behavior in the South China Sea appears to attest that this is the case.
To cancel out all the damage inflicted by Ma, the incoming Tsai government has to put renewed priority on the defense of the main island of Taiwan, while de-emphasizing the South China Sea policy in general and the Taiping issue in particular.
Even if the Hague court identifies Taiping as an island, the government must not declare an exclusive economic zone based on it, but keep itself stealthy in regional diplomatic activities on territorial questions.
The ROC’s interests will be best served when and only when the government openly supports no more than the following principles: the preservation of regional territorial status quo, peaceful settlement of territorial questions and the freedom of navigation.
Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St Andrew’s University in Osaka, Japan, and ROC-MOFA Taiwan Fellow at the Center for Security Studies in the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University.
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