Taiwan and the South China Sea

By Richard Pearson  / 

Fri, Jul 01, 2011 - Page 8

Not that any reminder was needed, but the recent confrontations in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, and the subsequent street demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, highlight for all observers that long---simmering tensions in the waters off Southeast Asia are on the verge of boiling over. Diplomats and officials in Beijing, Hanoi and Manila engaged in a round of accusations, protests and denials. Even usually quiet Singapore was prompted to call on China to clarify its territorial claims.

Taiwan, meanwhile, reiterated its position, emphasizing its sovereignty over the contested territory. According to a June 15 statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “the Nansha Islands (南沙群島), the Shisha Islands (西沙群島), the Chungsha Islands (中沙群島) and the Tungsha Islands (東沙群島), as well as their surrounding waters, seabeds and subsoil, are all an inherent part of the territory of the Republic of China (Taiwan).” Moreover, on Wednesday last week, as reported by the Central News Agency, Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy Yang (楊進添) spoke of increasing military patrols on Taiwan-held islands.

Odd as it may seem, given their history of animosity, the South China Sea territorial claims of the governments of China and Taiwan are nearly identical. Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) base their modern-day claims on the so-called “nine-dotted” or “U-shaped” line visible on maps issued by the then-Nanjing-based ROC government in 1947.

In the years since 1947, the ROC has issued periodic statements regarding its claims. In 1993, the ROC asserted sovereignty over the bulk of the South China Sea including the Spratlys, Pratas and Paracels. In 1995, Taipei reiterated its claim to the “U-shaped line” and initiated construction on Itu Aba Island (太平島) in the Spratlys despite longstanding territorial claims to the tiny island by the Philippines, Vietnam and China. The ROC’s position has not changed in any fundamental way in the years since 1947, while Taiwan and its region have evolved and developed dramatically.

Hewing today to the 1947 nine-dotted line claim imposes a needless liability on modern-day Taiwan. Taiwan needs good relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Democratic Taiwan wants to — and should — be perceived as a responsible international actor both in Asia and globally. The excessive maritime claims embodied by the 1947 claim, however, fly in the face of this. Taipei’s continued adherence to China’s maritime territorial claims is inimical to Taiwan’s long-term regional and international interests.

By holding to outdated and legally untenable claims, Taiwan risks alienating its ASEAN neighbors while its already deep economic ties to them continue to grow. By siding with Beijing on the excessive maritime claims inherited from 1947, an already-isolated Taipei risks alienating neighbors that are increasingly wary of China and which could potentially become more sympathetic to Taiwan.

Taiwan now has, in the choppy waters of the South China Sea, an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to international harmony and become a constructive force for regional stability. Taipei ought to modify its maritime territorial claims in a manner that is both more acceptable to its Southeast Asian neighbors and in accordance with international law.

Taiwan would be wise to adopt a modified claim based on the 200 nautical mile limit as enunciated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in its definition of exclusive economic zones. Such an arrangement has been put forward by Jon Van Dyke of the University of Hawaii. By adopting this stance, Taipei would be able to maintain a claim to a substantial portion of the South China Sea, while stepping back from those territorial claims that are particularly aggressive, ambitious and intellectually offensive to its neighbors. Doing so would also bring Taipei’s positions — unlike those of Beijing — into compliance with international law and the UNCLOS.

Importantly, such a modification of its maritime territorial claims would not constitute a wholesale renunciation of Taiwan’s interests in the South China Sea. Under the proposed arrangement, Taiwanese naval forces as well as its commercial shipping interests would continue to enjoy access to and passage through the South China Sea. In negotiating a more reasonable position with Vietnamese and Philippine authorities, Taiwan would have the opportunity to safeguard its oil, gas and fishing interests in the South China Sea.

Surely these interests would be better served by a harmonious South China Sea than by one fraught with confrontations, as is the case at present. Moreover, this arrangement need not entail withdrawal of ROC forces from Itu Aba and other islands. Sovereignty over islands can be negotiated between claimant states at a future date, once the ROC steps away from its legally spurious claim to the entire sea.

Much more importantly, given Beijing’s standing threat of a military response to a move toward Taiwanese independence, it would not constitute and could not reasonably be construed as constituting such a move by Taipei. There may be some concerns that Beijing would react militarily to such an adjustment of the ROC’s territorial claims.

However, history indicates otherwise. Just as former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) unofficially abandoned the ROC’s claim to China in 1991, Taipei today could all-but-officially adopt a more reasonable and conciliatory policy toward the South China Sea. Beijing would surely engage in hysterics for some time, but these would eventually pass.

A more regionally accommodating, legally defensible and internationally acceptable de facto position on the South China Sea could be presented as Taipei promoting a foreign policy more mature, more realistic and more regionally accommodating than that emanating from Beijing.

Furthermore, Taiwan’s tacit adoption of a modified claim could also help to move the dialogue between China and Southeast Asia forward. Not only would it put pressure on Beijing to adopt a position more acceptable to its neighbors, but Taipei’s decision to make the first move could provide Beijing with a face-saving way of backing away from its current claims.

Taiwan has in the South China Sea dispute an opportunity to take the high road and to upstage Beijing in the eyes and esteem of a wary Southeast Asia and an anxious world.

Taiwan’s military forces are not and will never be the deciding factor in any large-scale confrontation over the rocks, islands and reefs of the South China Sea. Any decision by Taiwan to modify its position would therefore be largely symbolic. Nevertheless, it would send an important signal to its Southeast Asian neighbors, to the international community and to Beijing. And in international relations, signals do matter.

Richard Pearson is a program associate at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, where he manages the China, Taiwan, Vietnam and South China Sea programs, including the foundation’s ongoing The Law of Sea and Asian Maritime Disputes project.