On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration published an award for the South China Sea arbitration case brought by the Philippines.
There are two points I would like to pick up on.
First, China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the “nine-dash line” are contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and are without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under the convention.
Second, all the high-tide features in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) are rocks that cannot sustain human habitation or an economic life of their own and accordingly have no exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf, the award said.
After the arbitration award was published, pro-unification academics and media outlets immediately made a big deal out of it by saying the court used every possible excuse to say that Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) in the Spratlys is a rock, hoping to appeal to the public’s patriotism and instigate opposition to the ruling.
However, with a little calm reflection, one can see that not only does the award not restrict Taiwan’s sovereign claims in the South China Sea but, in the grand scheme of things, has a positive effect on the establishment of Taiwan’s national sovereignty.
China’s “nine-dash line” is derived from the “U-shaped line,” or “11-dash line,” that the Republic of China (ROC) claimed in 1947.
Following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, Japan promised to relinquish Taiwan and the archipelagos in the South China Sea; the ROC government then drew the “Location Map of the Islands in the South China Sea (南海諸島位置圖)” in 1947 based on Japan’s promise and said that Taiwan, Penghu and the archipelagos in the South China Sea that were under the jurisdiction of the Governor-General of Taiwan, including the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) and the Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha Islands, 中沙群島), would all fall into its territory, even though a peace treaty between the ROC and Japan had yet to be signed.
The “U-shaped line,” which enclosed Taiwan, was shown on the map. The reason the ROC was in a hurry to draw the “U-shaped line” before the peace treaty was signed was that France had wanted to reclaim the Spratly Islands in 1946, and this would have meant reducing Japan’s territory in this region when the war ended.
The award concluded that China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction with respect to the “nine-dash line,” are without lawful effect, and this is tantamount to returning the sovereignty over the South China Sea islands to how it was in 1951, when Japan signed the Treaty of San Francisco and officially relinquished these islands.
Although the Allies asked Japan to renounce all rights, titles and claims to the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands, no recipient of the ownership of these islands after Japanese renunciation was specified.
In other words, this arbitration award highlights the fact that neither the Treaty of San Francisco nor the Treaty of Taipei, which was signed in 1952, specified which nation should have sovereignty over these islands, including Taiwan and Penghu.
This is conducive to the recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
As history shows, the sovereignty of islands and territories that belong to no one is ultimately determined by military power. The fact that the Spratly Islands are now claimed by Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Vietnam is one example. This is also how Taiwan’s political status is likely to be determined in the future.
As for whether Itu Aba Island is an island or a rock, the only question to ask is: If the ROC has occupied Itu Aba Island for 60 years, why has it not drawn up a 200 nautical mile (370.4km) exclusive economic zone? The answer is: It does not make a difference. As it is inconsequential, there is no point in debating whether it is an island or a rock.
However, as the award acknowledges Taiwan’s sovereignty over Itu Aba Island, it strengthens Taiwan’s right to claim it. Just as there are losses, there are also gains. The public has no need to worry over this issue.
Protecting the nation’s sovereignty is everyone’s responsibility, but what does protecting sovereignty really mean?
Sending warships to patrol the island on the spur of the moment is by no means the right answer.
Moreover, if the amount of money earned from fishing in that region is less than the amount of money spent on patrol missions, it is just a waste of taxpayers’ money.
What would really protect the nation’s sovereignty is to build up its infrastructure, invest in Taiwan and make Taiwan stronger.
Meanwhile, the 10 suggestions on Itu Aba Island that former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) proposed are really not worth the paper they are written on. They would accomplish nothing, but undermine the government’s “new southbound policy.”
Huang Tien-lin is a former advisory member of the National Security Council and a former Presidential Office adviser.
Translated by Ethan Zhan
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