While some Taiwanese people and media outlets are still furious over an international tribunal’s declaration that Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) is a “rock,” China has, despite its open dressing-down of the ruling, resumed its call for bilateral negotiations with the Philippines and brushed off calls for a retaliatory boycott.
China’s move, a strategic and pragmatic one, is a wake-up call to those in Taiwan who have been whipping up nationalistic fervor.
In the past week, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and its supporters, with the support of pro-KMT media, have followed the lead of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) by accusing an international law professor of being a liar and a traitor for saying that there is little fresh water left on Itu Aba and thus allowing the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to call it a “rock.” They have also branded President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) a “coward” for not visiting the island, and accused the US and Japan of influencing the tribunal.
Many academics have since said that the tribunal is fully aware that there is fresh water on the island and that “the capacity of the feature in its natural condition” even supports the growing of fruit and vegetables.
However, that rational discussion has not stopped detractors from slinging mud at the professor, who they believe to be pro-DPP, in a manner tantamount to a witch-hunt.
Blaming the US and Japan for the decision is an accusation peculiarly in line with recent accusations made by China: presupposing that a Japanese judge had been biased in naming the arbitrators and believing that the US was behind the Philippines’ claims.
Compounding the uproar has been the repeated and impassioned calls from the KMT that the Republic of China’s (ROC) sovereignty over Itu Aba has to be defended with force and the flexing of muscle.
Two curious incongruities arise from this heated train of thought. Since when has the KMT become so belligerent? After all, it is the KMT that has always been “reminding” Taiwanese of the horrors of war when it comes to cross-strait relations as it accused the DPP of unnecessarily provoking China with its stance and views.
The other, real, incongruity is that the tribunal did not and, according to its principles, would certainly not rule on sovereignty issues. What is all this furor about sovereignty when the ruling has left the nation’s sovereignty over Itu Aba undamaged?
The underlying reason, one would suspect, is that as China’s “nine-dash line” has been ruled to be without legal basis, the legitimacy of the “11-dash line” or “U-shaped line” that the KMT has long trumpeted and which is almost identical to China’s, has likewise been challenged. Without the U-shaped line, based on which the KMT has been claiming sovereignty over Itu Aba, the latter is believed to be at risk.
Championing the 11-dash line would look ridiculous to a majority of the Taiwanese public, for whom the line seems as remote and incomprehensible as the ROC’s claim over the whole of China. However, sensationalistic bluster protesting the “downgrading” (in this case from an island to a rock) of what people own and think they deserve can provoke an emotional response.
The “national interests” vested in Itu Aba being an island, ie, the 200 nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone, are presented as a loss the nation has suffered as a result of the ruling. What the KMT did not say is that the past KMT government did not establish that zone, either because it would have contradicted its U-shaped line claim or simply because it was not enforceable, given the chaotic nature of the region.
Taiwanese should be more realistic and level-headed than the KMT when it comes to so-called claims with a historical basis.
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