A year has passed since the ad hoc South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal rendered its final rulings on 12 July 2016 over 14 out of 15 complaints that the Philippines had filed against the People’s Republic of China (China). Taiwan (officially named Republic of China or ROC) was not the Philippines’ intended counterparty in the case, but became deeply involved due to the ROC government’s authorship of the original (eleven-dash) U-shaped line and the contentious issue of whether the Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island (Itu Aba) fits the legal definition of an “island,” which is entitled to 200-nautical-mile economic exclusive zone and continental shelf, or just a “rock.”
In the end, the Tribunal concluded, inter alia, that (1) China’s U-shaped line, upon which they have based their claims of “historic rights” exceeding 12 nautical miles of territorial sea from any mid-ocean high-tide features, is inconsistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and invalid; and (2) Itu Aba is a “rock” and entitled to only 12 nautical miles of territorial sea. There are, in fact, no “islands” in the Spratly group of features. Immediately after the ruling was announced, President Tsai Ing-wen issued a statement, stressing 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,” and declaring:
The arbitral tribunal did not formally invite the ROC to participate in its proceedings, nor did it solicit the ROC’s views. The decisions of the tribunal, which impinge on the interests of the ROC, especially with regard to the status of Taiping Island, have seriously undermined the rights of the ROC over the South China Sea Islands and their relevant waters. The ROC government does not accept any decisions that undermine the rights of the ROC, and declares that they have no legally binding force on the ROC. [emphasis added]
Another statement issued by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the government cannot accept the arbitral award because the ROC was inappropriately referred to as “Taiwan Authority of China.”
Since then, the ruling-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has tried to calm domestic nationalist skepticism by resolving to safeguard the ROC’s territorial sovereignty and rights over relevant waters the country is entitled to in the South China Sea, and pledging that it “will not renounce its sovereignty or legal rights.” President Tsai also enunciated “Four Principles, Five Actions” (四項原則, 五項行動) on July 19, 2016, at the first National Security Council meeting that she chaired since taking office on May 20, 2016, as her government’s policy blueprint for the South China Sea. The four principles are:
- Disputes in the South China Sea should be settled peacefully in accordance with international law and the law of the sea, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS);
- The ROC should be included in multilateral mechanisms aimed at resolving disputes;
- States concerned have an obligation to uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight in the region; and
- Disputes should be resolved by setting aside differences and promoting joint development. Through negotiations conducted on the basis of equality, the ROC is willing to work with other states concerned to advance peace and stability, as well as protect and develop resources, in the region.
The five actions are:
- Protection of fishing rights: The ROC government shall strengthen its capabilities to ensure the safety of fishermen and fishing operations.
- Multilateral consultations: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs shall enhance dialogue and communication with the States concerned, so as to reach consensus on cooperation.
- Scientific collaboration: The Ministry of Science and Technology shall increase quotas for international experts invited by related government agencies to travel to Taiping Island to conduct scientific research on ecological, geological, seismological, meteorological, and climate change matters.
- Humanitarian assistance and rescue: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs shall work with relevant international and nongovernmental organizations to make Taiping Island a center of humanitarian assistance and rescue operations, as well as a supply base.
- Cultivation of experts on the law of the sea: The ROC government shall strengthen its ability to deal with issues pertaining to international law.
In the past year, President Tsai’s government has made no mention of “U-shaped” line or “historic rights” in relation to the South China Sea. Instead, it has placed great emphasis on Taiping Island, not only as a piece of sovereign territory of the ROC, but also as an important base to show how Taiwan can make concrete contributions to regional peace and stability. Regarding the latter, the government has been pursuing cooperation with several countries to turn Taiping Island into a center for environmental and climate change research. In addition, on November 29, 2016, Taiwan carried out a high-profile cross-agency humanitarian assistant and disaster relief exercise entitled “Operation Nanyuan No. 1” (南援一號演習) around Taiping, with the purpose of demonstrating that the island is fully capable of serving as a base for providing humanitarian services in the South China Sea. The November 2016 drill drew protest from Vietnam that also claims sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.
With sovereignty and maritime boundary disputes unresolved in the Spratly region, recent land-reclamation and island-building efforts, along with the continuing militarization of maritime features occupied by Vietnam and China in Taiping’s vicinity, the island’s security risk has increased. Meanwhile, the unresolved political deadlock between Taipei and Beijing has prompted China to further isolate Taiwan internationally. Consequently, it can be expected that President Tsai’s efforts to meet both policy goals—safeguarding Taiwan’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea while promoting Taiwan’s role and participation in relevant multilateral cooperation mechanisms will be an uphill struggle. It is important that Taiwan continue to exercise wisdom and utilize all resources possible to help promoting peace and cooperation in the South China Sea.
The main point: Although Taiwan rejected the Philippines v. China arbitral award of July 12, 2016, Taiwan has since then made no mention of the Chinese “U-shaped” line or “historic rights” claims. Instead, President Tsai Ing-wen has placed Taiping Island (Itu Aba) at the center of her South China Sea policy. However, increasing security uncertainty surrounding the Taiping Island and political deadlock between Taipei and Beijing mean that the DPP government must exercise wisdom and utilize all resources possible to safeguard Taiwan’s/the ROC’s sovereignty, rights and interests in the South China Sea while seeking to make a contribution through multilateral cooperation.