Thu, Jul 14, 2016 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Rock-solid sovereignty over Itu Aba

In a long-awaited ruling, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on Tuesday said that China has no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea.

Although the ruling in the appeal filed by the Philippines against China has no legally binding effect on Taiwan, its relegation of all “high-tide features” in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) to “rocks,” including the largest of the outcroppings — Taiwan-governed Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島) — came as a surprise to many.

Responses to the ruling by the Presidential Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came later than expected, either because the government was ill-prepared for the court’s decision or President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was carefully choosing how to word her response.

Itu Aba was not originally included in the Philippines’ submissions for arbitration, “but the international tribunal took it upon itself to expand its authority,” declaring that Itu Aba is a “rock that [does] not generate an exclusive economic zone,” the ministry said in a statement.

However, before the ruling was issued, local media reported that the Tsai administration had prepared statements, and more importantly, it had made adjustments to the ROC’s “U-shaped line” policy on the South China Sea that the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) upheld.

The U-shaped line — also known as the “11-dash line” — was featured in the “Location Map of the South China Sea Islands” drawn up by the ROC government in 1947. After the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party changed it to a “nine-dash line” in 1953 to curry favor with Vietnam.

The reports said that the Tsai administration would no longer claim ROC sovereignty over Itu Aba on the basis of “historical rights,” but rather on the basis of “effective occupation.”

After a top-level meeting, the Presidential Office on Tuesday night released a statement saying that it “absolutely will not accept” the ruling. However, it avoided any mention of the U-shaped line.

It said the court’s decision on Itu Aba has “seriously damaged [the nation’s] rights on the South China Sea islands and in their relevant waters.”

While it can be argued that it remains a question how sovereignty over the South China Sea “islands” — rather than just Itu Aba — could be sustained without the U-shaped line policy, the effort was made to align the nation’s claims and rhetoric with international convention.

During his tenure, Ma was uncompromising when it came to the status of Itu Aba and he made several high-profile visits to the island. However, the affinity of his argument for Taiwan’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea with that of Beijing marred the image Taiwan wished to put out as a party in the game that is to be taken seriously.

In the arbitration, Taiwan is referred to as the “Taiwan Authority of China” — a reference that the ministry condemned as “demeaning to the status of the ROC as a sovereign state.” However, it might be difficult for the world to shake off this association with China given the “happy meeting” last year between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) under the “one China” framework.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is urging the Tsai government to uphold the U-shaped line, with some KMT lawmakers advocating cooperation with Beijing, which has called on Taiwan to work with China to “protect their ancestral properties together.”

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