Vol. 2, Issue 39
The Global Taiwan Brief Volume 2, Issue 39
Itu Aba and Pratas in the Shifting Strategic Environment
By: David An
The PRC’s South China Sea Gamble: Regional Investments as a Signal
By: Anthony Nelson
Taiwan’s South China Sea Policy Adjustment after the Hague Arbitration
By: Chi-Ting Tsai
Taiwan’s unique opportunity to help resolve the South China Sea Maritime Territorial Dispute
By: Christopher D. Yung
This week’s issue is the fourth of the Global Taiwan Brief’s curated series. The curated GTBs are special issues that focus on a central theme. The theme of this issue is the South China Sea and Taiwan’s Role, featuring several of the experts who spoke on the panel for the public seminar, “Taiwan’s Role in the South China Sea” which took place on July 19, 2017. This GTB has been curated by GTI Senior Research Fellow David An, who also moderated the panel.
Itu Aba and Pratas in the Shifting Strategic Environment
David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and was previously a political military officer at the US Department of State.
During World War II and the Korean War, General MacArthur famously called Taiwan an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” reflecting its vital geographical importance in support of American interests especially during crises. In a similar sense, Taiwan has its own unsinkable aircraft carriers in the midst of the South China Sea, since it occupies Itu Aba (Taiping Island) in the Spratleys, as well as the Pratas Islands. The former is literally the size of an aircraft carrier, complete with runways, and it happens to be located in the center of the South China Sea, right off the coast of Southern China. The latter is located right in between China and Taiwan the center of the South China Sea. Though the two occupied islands are both in choice locations, their value was overlooked when the South China Sea was much less contentious.
However, Taiwan’s Itu Aba and Pratas Islands will become increasingly valuable as the strategic environment shifts. Taiwan has possessed the naturally-formed Itu Aba Island, also known as Taiping Island, in the Spratlys since 1956. The island used to be the largest among the Spratlys, but it has since been surpassed, as a result of the PRC’s island building in recent years. Itu Aba currently houses a military garrison, a hospital, and a farm. Taiwan has currently deployed 40mm anti-aircraft artillery, a 120mm mortar, and AT-4 anti-armor rockets at Itu Aba, and is considering additional reinforcements. In addition to military hardware, the islands could be used to house signals information gathering equipment. The valuable role both of these islands could play in the future would be to collect information on aircraft and naval vessel movements in the region, and also to serve as a starting point for force projection. These capabilities that Taiwan possesses could be valuable to the US and its other partners.
Shifting Strategic Environment
The current strategic environment of the South China Sea as understood by American leaders is that of an area with strong regional claims and counterclaims, divided by overlapping dashed lines drawn on maps, which should be periodically challenged using freedom of navigation operations; under this conception, there is currently little room for Taiwan to play a helpful role. As such, the current US policy on the South China Sea stresses “the importance of a cooperative approach to ensuring a peaceful and stable South China Sea, freedoms of navigation and overflight, and claimants exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes.” Such a policy is appropriate for the previous strategic environment, but it is woefully inadequate in the face of growing existential threats against US forces and US allies in the region.
Geographical positions that are neglected during peacetime become more valuable with an aggressive shift in a strategic environment. This is because a shift in the strategic environment means that there has been a major change in the political, military, or social conditions in the region. The US Army’s definition of a shift in the strategic environment is a major change in one or more of the following eight conditions:
- physical environment
- cultural perception of time as a condition
While the strategic environment in the South China Sea is currently one of maintaining peace and pursuing mutually acceptable compromises, it could quickly become a new strategic environment, with conditions that require deterring and responding to military aggression. Taiwan’s islands could play a more valuable role as tension builds in the region.
Not only do each of the claimants in the dispute hold opposing positions on the South China Sea, but the entire status quo could essentially be disrupted. China is slowly changing the status quo by building and militarizing islands that were not there years ago. If the present, small-scale skirmishes between coast guards, fishing boats, and oil rigs balloon into a larger regional conflict, then we will have transitioned into new status quo. The security environment could shift considerably if interactions between claimants continue to escalate. At stake is not only the potentially energy resource-rich seabeds in the area, but also the immense trade flows that move through the Malacca and Singapore Straits.
Taiwan’s Capabilities Located in the South China Sea
In an area of such importance, where rising powers are building and militarizing islands, the US and its allies need as many partners as they can get. Though Taiwan has been underutilized by the US and its partners in this context, it can be an important partner in the future, through information-gathering and force projection. If tensions in the region continue, Taiwan will shift from relative obscurity on the South China Sea issue into a major player, due to the strategic geographical position of Itu Aba and Pratas islands.
According to Ian Easton at Project 2049:
In principle, Taiwan’s sovereignty claims and territorial holdings in the South China Sea should be viewed by the US as an asset […] In practice, however, the PRC has been able to exploit the fundamentally flawed bilateral relationship between Washington and Taipei to convince many observers that Taiwan has no positive role to play in the dispute.
A key benefit of Taiwan’s position in the South China Sea is information gathering. Taiwan’s position provides valuable information on the movement of aircraft, surface vessels and possibly sub-surface vessels in that vicinity. “For modern warfare, information is the key to the realm,” as Easton remarked when he spoke at a Global Taiwan Institute public seminar on the South China Sea. Easton further elaborates that Taiwan’s islands in the South China Sea are
…frontline scouting bases, alerting Taiwan’s president and cabinet if the PRC is preparing to attack. Weather stations, radars, listening posts, and patrol crafts on these islands all serve to provide valuable, life-saving information in peacetime, but their most important service is to meet the early warning and intelligence needs of the country.
According to Easton, Pratas Island is in a key location to monitor PLA units which could threaten Taiwan’s security, and these include the PLA’s 124th amphibious mechanized division in Boluo, the 6th Army Aviation Regiment in Foshan, the “South China Sharp Sword” Special Operations Brigade in Guangzhou, and the PLA Navy’s 1st and 164th Marine brigades in Zhanjiang.
Taiwan’s Greater Role in the Future
A key example from history of Taiwan becoming a more valuable partner is during the lead-up to the Korean War. Though Taiwan, as the Republic of China, lost the Chinese Civil War ending in 1949, it soon became an invaluable partner to the US after the onset of the Korean War, when the ROC and the US signed a mutual defense treaty. As the US and South Korea engaged in a proxy war against China and Russia in North Korea, Taiwan found itself with an important role in assisting the US and its allies.
Though the legal basis of Taiwan’s claim to Itu Aba has been challenged, the reality remains that Taiwan physically holds its islands and they continue to serve important practical functions. July marked the one-year anniversary of when an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, rejecting China’s so-called Nine-Dash line claim over almost the entire South China Sea as having no legal basis. Beijing has rejected the ruling. The Hague ruling also rejected Taiwan’s claim to Itu Aba, and Taiwan likewise reacted against the ruling. This does not change the reality of Taiwan’s operational control of the islands by those Coast Guard personnel physically present on the island, or the fact that they will continue to be useful in a future contingency.
Taiwan is already playing a helpful role by promoting peace in this region. On May 26, 2015, Taiwan proposed the South China Sea Peace Initiative, which led to the Agreement Concerning the Facilitation of Cooperation on Law Enforcement in Fisheries Matters between Taiwan and the Philippines.
The US should anticipate Taiwan’s greater future role in the region and understand the value of such a partnership. The next step for the US to upgrade its partnership with Taiwan in the South China Sea region is to invite Taiwan to join in military exercises, especially the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise as an active participant, or at least as an observer. The US should take concrete steps to work more closely with Taiwan today in anticipation of the future.
Taiwan is underutilized and underappreciated in present circumstances, but its hold on Itu Aba and Pratas will dramatically grow in importance if the region shifts toward greater discord. What seems to be a liability, of maintaining a logistics chain to Taiwan’s islands, which are guarded by Coast Guard and lightly armed, will become invaluable when the informational and operational need arises for such unsinkable aircraft carriers in the region. Taiwan can offer the US maritime domain awareness, which is priceless in the era of modern informationized and joint warfare. Seeing Taiwan as a valuable partner in the South China Sea is thus common sense. Taiwan’s military equipment is already potentially interoperable with the US since most of Taiwan’s advanced weapons are imported from the US and could coordinate and communicate with the US for help during a crisis.
The main point: Taiwan’s position at Itu Aba in the South China Sea is an overlooked asset that is becoming increasingly valuable as tensions in the region heat up and the strategic environment continues to shift in an aggressive direction.
The PRC’s South China Sea Gamble: Regional Investments as a Signal
Anthony Nelson is a Director of the East Asia and Pacific practice at the Albright Stonebridge Group, where he advises clients on market entry, public relations, and business strategy in Southeast Asia.
While Chinese efforts to change the strategic dynamics in the South China Sea have drawn headlines and the focus of strategic thinkers around the world, business leaders continue to be bullish on the region. Investment flows reveal that the promise of the world’s fastest growing region far outstrips concern over the potential major crisis that would be unleashed by China attempting to assert direct control over the Asia Pacific’s waterways. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries would seem to have little defense against efforts by China to close down shipping lanes in the South China Sea, yet they continue to be darlings of foreign investment. Indeed, the ASEAN countries collectively hold the largest stockpile of US FDI of anywhere in Asia– more than China, India, and Japan combined. Why? Because presently, the sheer value and volume of trade in the region massively outweigh the strategic rewards that China would win by closing it off.
The South China Sea is called “the world’s busiest waterway,” and China claims 90 percent of it on the basis of the “Nine-Dash Line,” a historic claim made by China in 1947. However, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also claim land features, resource rights, or exclusive economic zones in the same area. To underline its claim, China is building an ambitious network of militarized bases in places that take advantage of a series of half-forgotten rocks and shoals to create airbases and militarized hard points that expand their reach and give credence to their claims.
This has raised concern in some quarters about China’s ability to control, and, in the event of a conflict, shut down the flow of commerce and, perhaps more crucially, to interdict the flow of energy shipments to US allies like South Korea and Japan. Taiwan likewise relies heavily on the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca for its global shipping.
The South China Sea is the busiest sea trade route in the world, with $3.3 trillion in trade annually passing through its waters. The Malacca Strait, the passage from the Indian Ocean into the South China Sea, carries approximately 25 percent of all traded goods of all kinds: 25 percent of all oil that travels by sea, and one third of all global trade in liquefied natural gas. The Malacca Strait itself is only 1.5 nautical miles wide at its narrowest point, and would seem to be the most vulnerable target for a blockade.
The economies of Asia are fueled by Middle Eastern crude oil, the majority of which passes through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. China has risen to become the world’s biggest oil importer, with more than 50 percent of it coming from the Middle East. In 2016, China imported 80 percent of its oil imports through the Straits of Malacca. Japan and South Korea import more than 80 percent of their crude oil from the Middle East, and at least 20 percent of their natural gas as well. Both countries brings at least 60 percent of their total energy resources through the South China Sea, as does Taiwan. Around three trillion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas goes through the South China Sea to Taiwan, South Korea, and China.
Taiwan is heavily dependent on receiving trade and energy flows from Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia through those same South China Sea, Singapore Strait and Malacca Strait shipping routes. Additionally, much of Taiwan’s various export products flow out through the South China Sea in the opposite direction.
In a similar way, 95 percent of China’s trade is transported by sea, and the Indian Ocean to South China Sea route is its most important waterway, accounting for more than 60 percent of its foreign trade and an enormous portion of its resource imports. The closing of the South China Sea would hit China just as hard, if not harder, than any other country in the region. China also harbors substantial worries about the ability of the US and its allies to close off key routes that would deprive it of access to key imports of energy and basic materials such as iron ore.
We have a good example of how the closing of key waterways can affect the cost of trade. The Suez Canal was closed for 8 years because of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Studies conducted on affected countries indicated that an increase in shipping distance of 10 percent, produces a corresponding drop in trade of 5 percent. Countries that are more dependent on waterborne trade will be more affected, and there are few countries as reliant on the transit of goods by sea as China.
Even if a conflict did close the busy Malacca Strait and the South China Sea to waterborne traffic, the Lombok Strait route from the Indian Ocean to the Java Sea adds distance to any travel between the Indian Ocean and countries like Japan and Korea, but is still manageable. The Lombok Strait is deeper than the Straits of Malacca, so it can also accommodate larger ships that draw more water. Studies have indicated that, if forced to deliver all shipments through the Lombok route, Japan’s annual oil import bill would rise by something in the order of $600 million, less than one half of one percent of Japan’s annual import cost, and around $270 million for Korea. These costs would not run as high for Taiwan, with the shorter distance to travel through the Philippine Sea.
For Australia, nearly two-thirds of Australia’s exports travel through the South China Sea, but most of this cargo is bound for China. A disruption of trade with Australia’s other trading partners would still require the re-routing of exports to Thailand, Vietnam, and Taiwan, but that represents less than 6 percent of Australia’s exports.
When a closer look is given to how shipping actually flows through the South China Sea, countries which initially seem tremendously vulnerable, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, and the Philippines, are served mostly by “coast-hugging” routes which avoid the area within the “Nine-Dash Line” and wouldn’t be as easy for China to shut down, as they are closer to coastal defenses.
Much of this traffic would still be vulnerable to a closing of the Malacca Strait, but a CSIS report estimates that the cost of a complete closure of the Malacca Straits and re-routing through the Lombok Strait would cost in the order of $119 million per week, while a larger diversion that forced vessels to sail completely around Australia before entering the Philippine Sea would carry the much higher cost of $400 million per week.
While these costs are of course significant, they would be borne disproportionately by China, who relies so heavily on seaborne trade. The awareness of this vulnerability is part of the drive for China to expand its military options via manufactured bases in the sea, and to create the “Belt and Road” initiative . The overland railway and pipeline projects of OBOR may eventually ease China’s dependence on seaborne trade slightly, but it will almost certainly remain the most important method for bringing goods to market.
Control of the South China Sea is not only about trade, of course. It is also about resources. The South China Sea is home to plentiful fishing grounds, and Chinese fishing boats working in waters claimed by ASEAN countries have drawn headlines and local outrage in recent years. Commercial fishing represents around 3 percent of Indonesia’s GDP and almost 2 percent for Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, but the South China Sea fishery is currently not on a sustainable path.
While the South China Sea has around 7.5 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, it is reputed to hold untold further riches beneath its depth, with some Chinese estimates placing its reserves as high as 130 billion barrels of oil, with over 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. These estimates are widely disputed, but would put the region’s reserves among the world’s largest.
These are significant finds, of course, but would exclusive access to them be worth the cost of disrupting China’s massive foreign trade? Unlikely, when by playing a long game China can pressure individual claimants into favorable joint venture terms, and when China has had great success at destabilizing ASEAN unity on the issue of the South China Sea through the support of non-claimants like Cambodia.
With tension high and so many military resources committed to the region, the possibility of an accidental conflict which metastasizes into an ongoing series of stop and start disruptions in trade is a more substantial worry, but not a significant enough one to deter investment.
The main point: While the rise of Chinese power certainly requires a reassessment of threats and norms throughout the Asia-Pacific, and a genuine conflict between China and any other state would be massively destabilizing, China’s dependence on the free flow of goods and resources through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea make any effort to blockade or obstruct these waterways a gamble not worth taking. Peace is also in the interest of Taiwan and the rest of Northeast Asia, which rely heavily on the South China Sea as a passageway to receive oil shipments, as well as export their goods to South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
Taiwan’s South China Sea Policy Adjustment after the Hague Arbitration
Dr. Chi-Ting Tsai is an assistant professor at National Taiwan University
The South China Sea Arbitration decision, issued by the Tribunal in Hague, has been in effect for more than one year; however, discussions about China and other South China Sea claimants’ military or diplomatic responses are still going on. In particular, the international community remains concerned about whether China will comply with the arbitration and how China will further consolidate its control over the maritime features, e.g. through land reclamation efforts at the Scarborough Shoal, militarization in the South China Sea or conclusion of the framework for the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea between China and ASEAN. One of the main legal and political disputes underlying such discussions pertains to China’s historic rights claim, which was adjudicated as inconsistent with the Law of the Sea, within the so-called “Nine-Dash Line.” In spite of being declared as invalid under the Law of the Sea, China still insists upon claiming historical rights in the South China Sea and also does not accept or recognize the arbitration, according to the statement issued after the tribunal’s decision.
Various statements were issued by different agencies under the Tsai administration, including the Presidential Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with regard to the arbitration. Along with many others others, these statements also indicated that Taiwan would not accept the decision and maintains that it has no legally binding force. Such a response gave rise to US concern over Taiwan’s South China Sea policy position after President Tsai Ing-wen took office. The pressure stemming from this concern was both significant and sensitive, because it was said that President Obama was unsatisfied with former President Ma’s tacit cooperation policy with China during the arbitral proceeding.
However, why was Taiwan involved in the arbitration and why did the US government pay so much attention to Taiwan’s response, given Taiwan was not a party to the proceedings? The most important factor is that the ROC government issued the U-shaped or Eleven-Dash line map in 1947, in which the meaning of the U-shaped line was not explicitly articulated, and which became one of the central legal issues in the arbitration. China calls the line the “Nine-Dash” Line, which is almost identical to the U-shaped line, but with only nine dashes after China concluded two boundary agreements with Vietnam in 2000. Another important factor is whether Taiping Island (Itu Aba) could generate full entitlement to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, which concerns part of the Tribunal’s jurisdiction regarding the Philippines’ claims in the arbitration. Hence, US officials and experts from Washington policy circles publicly put pressure on Taiwan to clarify the character and claims of the U-shaped line published in 1947. For example, Daniel Russel, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the US Department of State, testified before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs that under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea “must be derived from land features,” and that any use of the “Nine-Dash Line” by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land areas “would be inconsistent with international law.” In the wake of Russel’s testimony, Jeffrey Bader, President Obama’s former chief advisor on China, advocated for Taiwan’s government to clarify its sovereignty claims based on the U-shaped line. Moreover, the US State Department published the document, “No. 143: Limits in the Sea” to reiterate the illegality of the U-shaped line under the UN Law of the Sea on December 5, 2014, which in turn gave rise to various domestic debates over Taiwan’s position in the South China Sea Arbitration. Among commenters, some argued that Taiwan should reassess its own South China Sea policy position from the perspective of international law in general and the UN Law of the Sea, specifically.
Although Taiwan’s government expressed its non-acceptance of the arbitration in its public statements, it still sent goodwill signals to international society by adjusting its legal position in the statements. First of all, during former President Ma’s administration, the typical statement usually started out referring to Taiwan’s “historical” claim in order to underline its territorial sovereignty over the four island groups and potentially over the historic waters around them. For example, in the preface of “Position Paper on ROC South China Sea Policy,” Taiwan wrote that “the South China Sea Islands were first discovered, named, and used by the ancient Chinese, and incorporated into national territory and administered by imperial Chinese governments.” However, after the arbitration, in “ROC Position on the South China Sea Arbitration” (hereinafter “Position Statement”), Taiwan only mentions that “the ROC government reiterates that the South China Sea Islands are part of the territory of the ROC.” By removing history and historical-use elements, Taiwan seems to consider ceding historical rights or waters within the U-shaped line.
Moreover, in the aforementioned 2016 Position Statement, Taiwan clearly expresses, “that the ROC is entitled to all rights over the South China Sea Islands and their relevant waters in accordance with international law and the Law of the Sea is beyond dispute.” However, it is noteworthy that the “Law of the Sea” was not clearly mentioned in the statements issued by the Ma administration. For example, in a statement issued on October 31, 2015, Taiwan claims that “[the South China Sea Islands], as well as their surrounding waters, are an inherent part of ROC territory and waters…. [and] the ROC enjoys all rights to these islands and their surrounding waters in accordance with international law.” The 2016 Position Statement emphasizes that maritime rights should be applied to the South China Sea Islands explicitly in accordance with the Law of the Sea within the U-shaped line; the latter position prioritizes international law, which may still include historical waters or rights under more general international law.
Last but not the least, Taiwan’s main reason not to accept the arbitration is based on both procedural and collective human rights dimensions. In the 2016 Position Statement, Taiwan argues that “the Arbitral Tribunal did not formally invite the ROC to participate in its proceedings, nor did it solicit the ROC’s views. Therefore, the award has no legally binding force on the ROC.” In other words, the reason that Taiwan does not accept the arbitration is based on the arbitral proceedings’ failure to meet the due process requirement; otherwise, Taiwan would not adjust its policy statement described in the above two paragraphs. On the other hand, in the first paragraph of the 2016 Position Statement, Taiwan protests that “the ROC is referred to as ‘Taiwan Authority of China.’ This inappropriate designation is demeaning to the status of the ROC as a sovereign state.” Hence, the arbitration also forces Taiwanese people to face the inconvenient truth and the bitter international reality, regarding Taiwan’s sovereignty status. Setting aside the internal disputes over pro- or con- Taiwan’s independence, most people in Taiwan believe that Taiwan satisfies the four legal elements of statehood, namely, population, territory, government and capacity to enter into relations with other states. Therefore, when the Tribunal referred to Taiwan as “Taiwan Authority of China,” President Tsai had to lodge a protest against the Tribunal’s ruling which was, to a certain extent, in violation of Taiwanese people’s collective self-determination right or identity.
As readers can infer from the above account regarding a series of responses made by Taiwan both before and after the arbitration, rule of law, historical claims, and Taiwan’s political relationships with the US and China are important variables affecting Taiwan’s legal and policy choices concerning the U-shaped line. To maintain a delicate balance in accordance with a fluctuant international environment is a significant challenge for a country like Taiwan. As I have argued elsewhere, before the Arbitration, Taiwan had already implicitly clarified through its long-term state practices that the U-shaped line is not seen as identifying historical waters or as delineating a rights line. President Tsai’s message has been even clearer, in dropping all historical elements and mentioning Law of the Sea specifically, which could be seen as a goodwill signal to the region, and to the US. Although such delicate policy adjustments in the statements may disappoint China, as long as Taiwan does not abandon the U-shaped line or explicitly clarify the U-shaped line, it still can be seen as maintaining a relatively status quo South China Sea policy. However, in terms of the structural dilemma Taiwan faces, it has no reason to explicitly interpret the legal character of the U-shaped line or dramatically change its policy toward it. As some have argued, historical evidence without a clear rationale attached to it, like that provided by the Ma administration in the statement has no probative value. In this vein, any policy decision made in relation to the U-shaped line—no matter if it is abandonment of the line, explicitly historical rights or waters claims, or an explicitly territorial sovereignty claim to the islands—must only be made following comprehensive historical and archival research, if such a decision is to be justified. As Taiwan houses the historical archives of centuries-old maps of the South China Sea, which are key to the legal and historical bases of China’s and Taiwan’s claims to the area, Taiwan’s role in the South China Sea should not be ignored.
The main point: The South China Sea arbitration decision was issued by the Tribunal in the Hague over one year ago, and Taiwan’s official statements indicate that it will not accept that decision. However, Taiwan has since sent goodwill signals to the international community by adjusting its legal position concerning the U-shaped line. The most important of these is for Taiwan not to mention history in government statements and for it to explicitly express its intention to claim maritime rights in accordance with the UN Law of the Sea. Nevertheless, comprehensive research in relevant historical archives is very important to justify any decision relating to the U-shaped line in the future. As Taiwan houses the historical archives relating to the U-shaped line map, Taiwan’s role in the South China Sea should not be ignored.
Taiwan’s unique opportunity to help resolve the South China Sea Maritime Territorial Dispute
Christopher Yung is the Donald Bren Chair of Non-Western Strategic Thought at Marine Corps University, where he serves as the director and professor of East Asian Studies. He is the author, editor, and contributor to numerous books, monographs and articles on Chinese strategy.
Taiwan’s recent stands on the SCS territorial dispute
Although Taiwan is an important player in the current dispute in the South China Sea, it has been constrained by a number of factors limiting its ability to be proactive on this issue. First, owing to its limited access to diplomatic forums, Taiwan has few options to politically weigh in on discussions to help resolve the South China Sea issue. Second, Taiwan has few options to make its case in international legal venues in which statehood is required for membership. The 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which had a significant negative impact on Taiwan’s stated claim to Taiping Island is one such example. Third, because Taiwan’s historic claims are in line with those of Beijing’s and arrayed against those of the other countries of the region, and because the US is studiously neutral on the substance of these disputes, Taiwan’s only natural ally in this regard is ironically the one country attempting to force the dissolution of Taiwan as a political entity and to fold it back into Beijing’s political sphere.
As a consequence, under President Ma and the Nationalists, Taiwan’s most recent stands on the South China Sea dispute have been marked by caution, attempts to balance competing and contradictory political objectives, and efforts not to “upset the applecart.” Thus, the Ma Administration’s proposal to convene an international conference to resolve the South China Sea dispute with international law as the guiding framework was constructive enough; however, Taiwan’s unwillingness to rid itself of the “Nine-Dash Line” construct would have proven to be a sticking point in any international discussion on this subject. Similarly, President Tsai’s initial efforts to distance the DPP’s South China Sea policy from traditional Chinese stances on its maritime sovereignty left her and the DPP vulnerable to the accusation within Taiwan that the DPP was selling out Taiwan’s sovereign claims. She had to beat a fast retreat and has now shifted in the opposite direction by directing the Taiwan military to increase its patrols and enhance its presence in the South China Sea—a move that has not made the other countries of the region particularly happy.
Four potential roles for Taiwan in the South China Sea dispute
Taiwan is in a real conundrum when it comes to formulating a South China Sea policy. The roots of this conundrum lie in what boundaries and sovereignty claims symbolize. The foundations of Taiwan’s sovereignty claims come from China’s history (ancient and modern). Thus, for Taiwan as with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the basis of its claim has been closely connected with what it means to be Chinese. Yet as Taiwan becomes less “Chinese” and more “Taiwanese” the consequences of moving away from traditional maritime sovereignty claims to newer claims based entirely on international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have both huge implications for cross-Strait relations and for domestic politics. This, in a nutshell, explains the rather cautious—and at times schizophrenic—nature of Taiwan’s SCS policy. Taiwan has four options as it contemplates its future SCS policy. These are listed in ascending order of riskiness.
Do nothing, promote the status quo
Given the tensions inherent in Taiwan’s stance, it is only natural that a Taiwan administration might gravitate towards a status quo position. That is, Taiwan could conceivably say that its position on the Nine-Dash Line, and its current claim to the South China Sea remains in place, and insist that Taiping Island is indeed an island despite the rulings of the international tribunal. This would ensure that its position did not diverge from that of Beijing’s and therefore it would not jeopardize the larger cross-Strait relationship. Nor would it leave an administration vulnerable to the domestic charge that it was selling out Taiwan’s maritime sovereignty. However, neither would it be constructive in resolving the South China Sea maritime dispute, nor would it stave off Taiwan’s increasing isolation. Left as is, Taiwan will be increasingly isolated in the international arena. Present and future Taiwan governments need to proactively engage with issues that have a larger impact on the region; such engagement could help offset or mitigate this natural slide toward isolation.
Play a directly constructive role and serve as a model for resolution of the dispute
By virtue of its central position in the dispute, Taiwan can play a constructive role by simply taking proactive steps to create dialogue amongst disputants and reach bilateral agreements with other claimants. An analogy to this point is the agreement Taiwan reached with Japan over fisheries in April 2013. Taiwan could take active steps to come to other such agreements in the commercial sphere, such as in joint development of resources. And although President Ma’s initiative to convene an international conference to discuss resolving the South China Sea dispute through international law would almost surely have been hobbled by all kinds of disagreements with the PRC over whether Taiwan had a right to convene such a conference at all, who would sit at the table, how China’s use of “historic rights” could even conform to international law, at least it raised Taiwan’s profile and demonstrated that Taiwan was willing to take a major risk to help resolve this issue.
Work with the PRC to address some of these disagreements with rival claimants
Taiwan’s scholars and government officials are acutely aware of the dangers of the PRC’s “United Front” tactics, in which the PRC seeks to entice Taiwan into a temporary cooperative relationship and then, when it suits Beijing, ensnares the recipient of such tactics into a political web. Yet, it still might be worth considering areas of cooperation with Beijing if such cooperation would help move the SCS territorial dispute toward resolution. Although not politically feasible at present, Taipei could signal its willingness to directly discuss the possibilities of forming joint positions on the South China Sea dispute (which the PRC has repeatedly called for), if Beijing in promises, in return, to work with Taipei on formulas which seek to bridge Chinese staces on maritime sovereignty rights with the principles of international law and ultimately a promise on Beijing’s part to consider the convening of the aforementioned international conference. One possibility is for China and Taiwan to work together to form a joint position on a commercial development proposal with ASEAN.
Vigorously use its SCS policy as negotiating leverage
As an article in the Diplomat has argued, by far the riskiest action that Taipei could engage in with regard to the South China Sea is to use its policy position on the South China Sea as negotiating leverage against Beijing. At present Taiwan holds historic documents and artifacts, which Beijing could use to bolster its SCS claims through appeals to “historic rights.” In reality, Taipei could torpedo Beijing’s claim by making those materials available and announcing that, despite this historic evidence, Taiwan was moving into the 21st century, and therefore, Taipei was now renouncing its “historic, rights-based” claim and would henceforth comply fully with maritime claims based on UNCLOS. Similarly, Taipei could announce that it was ready to clarify the basis of its Nine-Dash Line claim—a move that would severely undercut the PRC’s position because it is unlikely that the basis would be anything other than “historical.” This stand would immediately bridge Taiwan’s position with that of the United States and other claimants in the region who base their claims entirely on UNCLOS.
Cross-Strait relations would likely deteriorate and Taiwan could expect the PRC to engage in all kinds of coercive behavior to force Taiwan to reverse its position. Additionally, this move would pose grave political risks to whichever party is in power on Taiwan. However, as Taiwan moved ahead with such a proposal, it could devise what such an UNCLOS only claim would look like and how it would conform to the claims of rivals and adhere to international law. The prospect of such an occurrence just might horrify Beijing enough that it would be willing to negotiate with Taipei on increased international space for diplomatic maneuvering in exchange for maintaining the current Taiwan maritime sovereignty claim. Even if Beijing did not to agree to negotiate, Taiwan will have taken steps to conform its claim to international law and will have firmly sided with those countries who adhere to this law. This action alone would produce a huge amount of international goodwill for Taiwan.
Because maritime sovereignty policy and territorial claims are wrapped up in issues of identity, history, and security, it is no wonder that Taiwan has traditionally been reluctant to be too proactive on the South China Sea issue. Additionally, Taiwan’s ambiguous international status limits many of Taiwan’s options to weigh in on the dispute. Nonetheless, Taiwan cannot simply do nothing and take cover behind its current South China Sea policy. The drift toward greater isolation and the trend toward Beijing gradually luring Taiwan into its political sphere poses too many risks for present and future Taiwan administrations to be complacent. Two of the larger remaining grand strategic options appear to be quite risky. A threat to renounce Taiwan’s traditional claim based on historic rights would plunge Taiwan into a deep and sustained row with Beijing. If the purpose of the renunciation is to create greater negotiating leverage with the PRC, then the risk might be worth taking. A move toward greater cooperation with Beijing on issues related to the South China Sea poses the risk that Taiwan is snared by Beijing’s “United Front” tactics, but if the result is a PRC promise to agree to a Taiwan proposal to convene an international conference to help bridge the Chinese position with that of international law, thereby elevating Taipei’s international status, then this too might be worth the risk. Finally, the most likely future path allowing Taiwan to play a constructive role is for the current and future administrations to simply be proactive and move to work out bilateral agreements with rival claimants on a range of contested issues. This staves off isolation and does not necessarily anger Beijing.
The main point: Taiwan is in an important position to help move along resolution of the South China Sea dispute, but it is limited in its ability to be proactive owing to a range of political factors including its ambiguous international status. Taiwan has four courses of action available, ranging from risk averse to extremely risky options.