Mon, Jul 18, 2016 - Page 6 News List

Itu Aba row requires a pragmatic, subtle plan

By Yan Jiann-fa 顏建發

The result of the arbitration case that the Philippines took to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, over its South China Sea dispute with China has been released. Although Taiwan favors respecting international law, it cannot accept the part of the judgement that says its territory of Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island 太平島) is not an island.

According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), land formations that can maintain human habitation or other forms of economic activity are defined as islands. Another unjust aspect of this case is that the Republic of China was not invited to take part in the arbitration procedure, and the tribunal never sought the nation’s opinion.

It is clear that the tribunal was selective in the way it collected evidence and made its judgement, and that political motives were involved.

Taiwan is dispatching a frigate to conduct patrols in the South China Sea to express its determination to protect its territory.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) boarded the frigate to inspect the fleet command and boost the morale of the officers and sailors, a move supported by the ruling and opposition parties.

China has said it would neither participate in or accept arbitration nor recognize or honor the ruling, and it held large-scale military exercises before its announcement. The measures diminished the authority of the ruling, while further complicating the South China Sea issue. Under such circumstances, the ruling does not end the dispute. Rather, it marks the start of another round of sparring.

Apart from conducting patrols to demonstrate the nation’s sovereignty, the government should invest more resources into conducting research on Itu Aba and putting the island to peaceful use. That would be another way of declaring sovereignty. It would raise the public’s awareness of the South China Sea issue and be a way of accumulating evidence of the nation’s ownership of the island.

Apart from looking for ways to make the court and the international community understand Taiwan’s standpoints and demands, the government should also show the Philippines what it is doing with Itu Aba, while protesting the claim that it is not an island.

However, there are many aspects to foreign relations and each issue should be handled separately. Considering Taiwan’s proximity to the Philippines, Taipei should not overlook the task of developing close relations with that nation.

The Philippines has close relations with the US, is a member of ASEAN and occupies a strategic position. It covers an area of 299,764km2 — about 8.3 times the size of Taiwan — and its population has reached 100 million. Taiwan is the Philippines’ sixth-biggest trading partner, while the Philippines is Taiwan’s 14th. It only takes one hour and 20 minutes to fly from Kaohsiung to the Philippines’ Subic Bay and two hours from Taipei to Manila. Clearly, the Philippines is an important staging post in Taiwan’s “new southbound policy.”

There are no eternal allies or perpetual enemies in diplomacy. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made many gestures of goodwill to Beijing and said he is willing to sit down and talk with China.

He has even proposed setting up joint-venture companies to share the resources of the South China Sea. In light of this, the two nations could patch up their disagreements.

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