Mon, Apr 02, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Abraham M. Denmark On Taiwan: A role for Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific

Taiwan has a major potential role to play in building regional economic connectivity in South and Southeast Asia. By promoting Taiwan’s construction companies to build infrastructure projects across the region, Taipei could both buttress its role in the region’s economic destiny while also opening new business opportunities for Taiwan’s private sector. While Beijing will likely object to such activities, partnering with other nations — like Japan, India, and the United States — would likely mitigate such reactions from Beijing.


Unfortunately, efforts to integrate Taiwan into the US Indo-Pacific strategy is not without hurdles. Most significant will be persistent differences between Washington and Taipei over the South China Sea. Importantly, Taiwan has consistently supported key principles that the United States has long held as essential to a free and open region — the peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation and commerce, and the sovereignty of all states to make decisions for themselves free from threat or coercion.

Nevertheless, aspects of Taiwan’s approach to the South China Sea will likely remain a challenge in its unofficial relationship with the United States. The reality is that Beijing’s nine-dash line claims is rooted in the history of the Republic of China, and Taipei’s claims in the South China Sea largely mirror those of Beijing. More immediately, however, is the status of Taiping Island (太平島, also known as Itu Aba).

Taipei has long seen Taiping Island as a significant strategic asset. It is one of the largest features in the South China Sea, and Taiwan’s leaders have previously identified it as a potential base for humanitarian operations. These ambitions have in the past run afoul of American sensitivities to exacerbating disputes in the South China Sea. The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that Taiwan’s claim to Taiping Island were not compatible with international law, and that Taiping is legally not an “island” but a “rock,” meaning it could generate an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf, further exacerbated tensions between Washington and Taipei over this issue.

Such tensions are unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Washington and Taipei would be best advised to manage these issues and avoid incidents that highlight these disagreements.


Knowledgeable readers may have noticed that many of these efforts to enhance Taiwan’s role in the Indo-Pacific fit well within President Tsai Ing-wen’s much-vaunted “New Southbound Policy,” which seeks to strengthen Taiwan’s ties to countries across South and Southeast Asia by leveraging Taiwan’s national assets in several arenas. Yet this strategy has been hampered by limited resources and Taiwan’s increasingly narrow international space as a result of increasing sensitivity from Beijing.

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