The Last few days I have heard about little else but the controversy recently sparked involving a translation that appeared in the Taipei Times of an article of mine published in the Apple Daily back in 2015. For my part, I would have preferred to have kept above the fray, but seeing some of the opinions and criticisms over said translation are becoming increasingly ridiculous, I felt that I had little choice but to respond.
First of all, at no point have I ever considered that Taiping Island (太平島) is a rock (礁). I did not use that term in referring to the island in the article in question. In every mention of the island, I either used the Chinese name “Taiping Island” or referred to it as an “island” (島嶼) or “that island” (該島). Thus, I wrote that “Taiwan still controls Taiping Island of the Spratlys (Nansha, 南沙),” or referred to it as a “small island sitting by itself over 1,600km away from Taiwan,” or spoke of “the location of Taiping Island,” or said that “Taiping Island is absolutely not ‘an island checkpoint that no boat can pass’” and that “although Taiping Island is the largest naturally formed island of the Spratlys,” and so on. I mentioned Taiping Island more than 10 times in that article, and at no point did I ever say that Taiping Island was a “rock” (岩礁).
Secondly, I have, indeed, personally been to Taiping Island, and I have never said that there was no fresh water on Taiping Island. In the article in question, all I said was that, “as to the military question of whether the island could serve as an advance relay station or to supply military vessels in passage, and leaving aside the issues of oil and food, there used to be a fresh water supply in the past, but after decades of continuous water extraction, even water now needs to be shipped in from Taiwan.”
What this meant was that, while there is water on the island, after decades of extraction, the water supply on the island is no longer sufficient to supply a large contingent of people stationed there, and the water to supply a large contingent of people stationed there needs to be shipped in from Taiwan. In fact, I myself drank bottled water brought in from Taiwan when I was on the island.
Unfortunately, the English translation of the article was not done by me, and it was difficult for this precise meaning to come out in the translation. At no point did I say that the translation was wrong, but because of the difference in the way the meaning came across in the translation, it did not come across precisely enough, hence the misunderstanding.
And this is how, when the Philippines’ lawyers were presenting their oral argument, they mentioned this translation, using it to augment their position that Taiping Island was devoid of fresh water. I myself made an attempt to explain this translation to the media in Taiwan, although as it happened there was no real need, as in an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief it submitted to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in March, the Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law (CSIL, 中華民國國際法學會) had already addressed the issue of the presence of drinking water on Taiping Island. Said brief provided ample information and evidence in great detail on the issue of the quality and quantity of water on Taiping Island.
Thirdly, the Tribunal has acknowledged that Taiping Island has water sufficient to provide for drinking water to support habitation for a limited number of people. In its “South China Sea Arbitration Award of 12 July 2016,” the tribunal discusses, in numbered sections 580 through 584 in the section entitled “The Presence of Potable Fresh Water,” the academic study reports submitted by each party, bringing these all together in section 584 on page 240. Here, that Tribunal summarizes its determination: that Taiping Island has fresh water that would, under natural conditions, be adequate to support a number of individuals living on the island. Moreover, the tribunal reconfirms the fact of the presence of fresh water on Taiping Island on page 251 of the Award, in numbered paragraph 615: that “the principal high-tide features in the Spratly Islands are capable of enabling the survival of small groups of people.”
Basically, my comments, irrespective of whether or not they were accurately translated, and even if they were mentioned in the oral argument presented to the Tribunal by the Philippines’ lawyers, were not part of the information on which the court based its Award, and much less actually influenced the decisionmaking behind the Award. Certain individuals have said my comments served as the basis of the tribunal’s decision, consigning Taiping Island to being defined as a rock. This is clearly a flawed interpretation.
However, how is it possible for the Tribunal to still determine that Taiping Island is a “rock” at the same time as saying that it has potable fresh water? There are multiple reasons why the tribunal has made this determination, the main one being its conclusion, arrived at through the inspection of historical data, that “in its natural conditions” it was incapable of “sustaining human habitation or an economic life of its own,” for a prolonged period, according to pages 251 to 254 of the Award.
As to the data and submitted documents that were eventually included as the basis for the decision, leading the court to come to its decision, these included the Philippines’ memorial and the submitted evidence, statements given at then-president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) international news conference, the amicus curiae brief submitted by the CSIL, incorporating a wealth of historical facts and evidence, and a range of scientific reports.
Time will tell whether these scientific reports will hold up to scrutiny or whether they will be proved to be controversial, leading many to question how correct the tribunal’s award is. Anyone who has not read the award can perhaps twist things to mean that what I have said is the reason why Taiping Island has been said to be a “rock,” but anyone who has read the Award tries to do so clearly is either being disingenuous or has some other intention.
Indeed, anyone who wishes to know the truth can read the Award. Study that, and you will know who is responsible for turning Taiping Island into “Taiping Rock”; who made the Taiping Island that belongs to Taiwan become the “Taiping Island that belongs to China”; and indeed who demoted the government of the Republic of China to the “Taiwan authority of China.”
As the poet said: “Fear not that clouds might block the view, for you stand at the highest elevation.” I have faith in democracy, and I have faith in Taiwan.
Chiang Huang-chih is a professor of law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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