The conflict between Taiwan and the Philippines over disputed waters in the Bashi Channel has highlighted that the government is too conservative in ocean governance, and Taiwanese are suffering because of this. One cause of Taiwan’s current problems is the delay in establishing a ministry of marine affairs.
Such a ministry could help the nation obtain true maritime sovereignty in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China would not like that to happen, and the Taiwanese government seems hesitant, because of its pro-China policy. As a result, Taiwan has been unable to use the Law of the Sea convention to obtain the benefits and maritime sovereignty that it should have.
The convention represents a global collective consensus on ocean governance. Despite its articles regarding arbitration procedures, its overall implementation depends mainly on negotiations between the countries involved. More importantly, the convention clearly states that the right to manage these waters is part of a nation’s sovereignty.
The Philippines, our adversary in the current dispute, may have a weak national defense, but it is keenly aware of how to apply the convention. From 1961 to 1984, the Philippines continuously proclaimed its territorial sea baselines, territorial waters and exclusive economic zone in accordance with the convention. More recently, it claimed sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) and submitted its continental shelf boundaries to the UN.
In 2011, a group of Filipino legal academics filed a lawsuit against the Philippine government for violating the constitution in making these proclamations, but the Supreme Court ruled that it was legitimate for the government to do so in accordance with the convention.
The government hopes to bring Taiwan to the world with the help of international law. However, when it comes to the convention, it has restricted itself by drawing up a temporary enforcement line that does not include the whole area that Taiwan claims.
Only by demonstrating to the world Taiwan’s scope of sovereignty according to the convention will Taiwan be able to put any force behind its talk of equality.
There are also two policy aspects to the convention. The first is to meet the goal of rational and scientific sustainable ocean governance, and the second is it is more important to achieve this goal than to become a signatory to the convention. This is also the path that Taiwan should take, since it is neither a UN member nor a signatory to the convention.
There are many other countries that are not signatories to the convention, including the US, which is doing better than what the convention demands in terms of ocean governance. Taiwan should also boost its strength in sustainable marine development in areas such as the protection of maritime resources, the creation of an effective and sustainable system and industry, the complete conservation of marine ecology and the promotion of welfare in this maritime state. That would give Taiwan the right to negotiate for maritime sovereignty under the convention.
Taiwan does not need China’s favor to gain sovereignty. As a matter of fact, China is building a large number of fishing boats in an attempt to gain sovereignty over the South China Sea. It believes that the sea will fall into its hands once the surface is covered by huge numbers of Chinese fishing boats.
This view is not supported under the convention. A massive number of fishing boats are likely to exhaust marine resources, and this is a violation of the international consensus on sustainable ocean governance under the convention. Taiwan’s fishing industry should therefore create a new vision for enhancing its capability, and controls must be put in place to stop fishermen from exhausting marine resources.
Hence, the most urgent task is to establish a ministry of fisheries and marine affairs under the convention framework. The ministry should be responsible for building a protected marine area for ecological and resource conservation within Taiwanese waters. It should also be responsible for technological advancement of the fishing industry, while acting as a guardian of overlapping exclusive economic zones and helping economically disadvantaged countries by jointly governing marine resources. By doing so, Taiwan’s maritime sovereignty will become self-evident.
Lee Jeng-di is an assistant professor in the Institute of Marine Affairs at National Sun Yat-sen University.
Translated by Eddy Chang