Taiwan’s unique opportunity to help resolve the South China Sea Maritime Territorial Dispute

Taiwan’s unique opportunity to help resolve the South China Sea Maritime Territorial Dispute

Taiwan’s unique opportunity to help resolve the South China Sea Maritime Territorial Dispute

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.