Taiwan’s Delicate Balancing Act in the South China Sea

Taiwan’s Delicate Balancing Act in the South China Sea

Taiwan’s Delicate Balancing Act in the South China Sea

Following a Japanese news report on May 12 that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be conducting large-scale beach-landing exercises around Hainan Island in August, reportedly including a simulated invasion of the Taiwan-controlled Dongsha Islands (Pratas Islands, 東沙群島), Taiwan’s government deployed an undisclosed number of Taiwanese marines to the islands to strengthen their defensive capabilities. The move highlighted Taiwan’s oft-forgotten claims in the South China Sea. For Taipei, the dispute with Beijing over the Dongsha Islands is only one of several bilateral and multilateral territorial disputes with other claimants in the South China Sea. Yet, Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea have often been overshadowed by those of China and other regional countries, and have been further weakened by Taipei’s exclusion from regional and international organizations.

Taiwan’s Claims in the South China Sea

The Republic of China (ROC) proclaims that the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands, 南沙群島), Xisha Islands (Paracel Islands, 西沙群島), Zhongsha Islands (Macclesfield Bank, 中沙群島), and Dongsha Islands, as well as their surrounding waters, are an “inherent part of ROC territory and waters.” The ROC argues that its rights over these territories are based on history, geography, and international law. Its historical claims in the South China Sea date back to 1947, when Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) drew a U-shaped, “eleven-dash line” (十一段線) on a map around the territory in the South China Sea that he claimed as encompassing ROC territory. After coming to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) changed the “eleven-dash line” to a “nine-dash line” (九段線), though neither concepts are considered legal terminology. Therein lies Taiwan’s dilemma: changing the ROC’s historical claims would indicate—especially to Beijing—that the island democracy was abandoning its historical political identity and moving towards an inherently Taiwanese national identity, or even independence.

Taiwan’s government has argued that the ROC laid claims over the vast expanse of islands, reefs, cays, and banks in the South China Sea long before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Southeast Asian countries began raising sovereignty claims in the 1970s. The ROC currently controls Dongsha Islands, Taiping Island (Itu Aba, 太平島), and the unoccupied Zhongzhou Reef (Ban Than Reef, 中洲礁) in the Spratly Islands. Taiwan also previously held Thitu Island (Zhongye Island, 中業島), the second-largest natural island in the Spratly Islands, but lost it to the Philippines. After the ROC military withdrew from Thitu Island to escape a typhoon in 1971, the Philippines’ army seized the island, later naming it Pag-asa Island. The South China Sea dispute is largely focused on the Spratly archipelago, which is claimed in whole or in part by Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Taiping Island and the Hague Ruling

The ROC has controlled the largest natural island in the disputed Spratly chain, the 114-acre Taiping Island, since 1946, though China, Vietnam, and the Philippines also have claims on the territory. It has since become the fourth-largest island in the archipelago following China’s land reclamation work on Mischief Reef (美濟礁), Fiery Cross Reef (永暑礁), and Subi Reef (渚碧礁). The island has a 0.74-mile airstrip and essential infrastructure in place, including water, electricity, agriculture, and transportation, to sustain economic life. Taiping Island is inhabited by around 180 people, including 150 Taiwan Coast Guard officers.

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines against China’s vast historical claims to the South China Sea. The international tribunal also determined that all of the islands in the Spratly archipelago, including Taiping Island, had the legal status of “rocks,” and did not meet the definition of “islands” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which would have entitled them to a 200-mile nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Taipei rejected the non-binding ruling, since it was effectively shut out of the arbitration process and was not given the opportunity to provide information to the tribunal. Taiwan’s government strongly insisted that Taiping Island—which boasts natural freshwater, fertile soil, crops, and livestock—can independently support human habitation and economic life and therefore meets the definition of an “island” under UNCLOS. Taipei reiterated its position that the ROC “holds sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their surrounding waters.” President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) also boarded a naval ship shortly after the Hague ruling, calling on its crew to defend Taiwanese territory in the South China Sea. Beijing, which also lambasted the Hague findings, praised Taiwan’s firm stance, since from its perspective Taipei was also upholding the PRC’s sovereignty claims over the disputed territories.

Differentiating Taiwan’s and China’s Claims

While the PRC and ROC share similar territorial claims in the South China Sea, past and present Taiwanese administrations have had no intention of cooperating with Beijing on the issue in light of the latter’s continuous bellicosity towards Taiwan. Ultimately, Taiwan’s and China’s approaches to the South China Sea disputes could not be more different. Taipei has largely been focused on the territories that it currently controls, namely protecting Taiping Island and the Dongsha Islands. While some of Taiwan’s activities on these islands, such as constructing an airstrip and conducting live-fire military exercises on Taiping Island, have raised complaints from Vietnam, they are a far cry from China’s large-scale land reclamation, military base installations, and other construction projects.

The Tsai administration seems to have made some subtle shifts in Taiwan’s references to its claims in the South China Sea, while still seeking to maintain the status quo. In contrast to Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who often referred to historical claims that dated back to late Imperial China, the Tsai administration has moved away from mentioning the “U-shaped line” and “historical waters” (歷史性水域線). Furthermore, both Ma and Tsai have sought to differentiate Taiwan’s claims from those of China by emphasizing Taiwan’s adherence to international law. The Ma administration did not acknowledge Beijing’s creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea as a basis for territorial sovereignty and argued that the dispute should be resolved through international law. Additionally, President Tsai stated in July 2016 that the South China Sea disputes 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.”

Dongsha Islands Dispute

The dispute over the Dongsha Islands is unique in the sense that it is limited to the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. No other countries have made claims to them; thus the Pratas Archipelago is often not considered part of the broader South China Sea dispute. Nonetheless, a Chinese military invasion of the Dongsha Islands may be a harbinger to a potential war in the Taiwan Strait, and Taipei may be forced to defend its outer islands.

However, the forthcoming Chinese military exercises in Hainan have raised concerns about Taiwan’s capability to defend its far-flung islands. The Dongsha Islands are garrisoned with around 200 lightly equipped Taiwanese officers of the Coast Guard Administration (海巡署) on sea patrol. Yet the islands are located in the South China Sea nearly 275 miles away from Kaohsiung and only 160 miles away from China’s Guangdong Province. The Dongsha Islands are not only far away from the main island of Taiwan, but also lack defensive barriers and are vulnerable to attack. Taiwan’s fighter jets would likely run out of fuel just to make the two-hour trip to protect the islands. Therefore, Taiwan has a very real possibility of losing the tactical battle against the PLA over the islands. Beijing, however, would likely face international condemnation from a unilateral military occupation in the South China Sea. Northeast and Southeast Asian neighbors, as well as the United States, could unilaterally or collectively take steps to frustrate China’s power projection in both the East and South China Seas.

Exclusion from Regional Conflict Resolution Mechanisms

Indeed, in a crowded field of contenders fighting over the South China Sea, Taiwan’s sovereignty claims have been greatly diminished by its exclusion from international and regional institutions aimed at mitigating and resolving the territorial disputes. As most of the claimants are Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, Taipei’s non-cooperation with ASEAN creates more difficulties in gaining greater external support for its South China Sea claims. The ASEAN countries have often worked as a political unit in supporting members’ claims in the face of Chinese aggression. For instance, at the recent ASEAN summit in June, Southeast Asian leaders contended that the 1982 UNCLOS treaty should be the basis of sovereign rights in the South China Sea, in an apparent rebuke of China’s historically based claims. Furthermore, Taipei has been critically left out of ASEAN-China discussions over the past several years on a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, which is expected to be completed by 2021. Therefore, Taiwan’s government has proposed that all regional claimants including Taiwan participate in dialogue and cooperation mechanisms to resolve the territorial disputes—an idea that was outlined in former President Ma’s South China Sea Peace Initiative (南海和平倡議) announced in May 2015.

At bottom, Taiwan faces a difficult balancing act with respect to its national identity and its relations with China and the United States. Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea are tied to its historical identity as the ROC, which also has direct implications for cross-Strait relations. If Taiwan relinquishes any of its claims in the South China Sea (similar to its informal relinquishment of sovereignty over Mongolia), this would raise the question of whether the ROC is changing its national boundaries or its constitution. Such moves may also weaken the effectiveness of China’s historically based claims and, in turn, could further exacerbate cross-Strait tensions. In the worst-case scenario, Beijing may interpret such moves as tantamount to moving towards Taiwanese independence. At the same time, Taipei does not want to appear to be closely aligned with China on the South China Sea issue, particularly as it seeks to strengthen relations with Washington, and thus has stressed its adherence to international law. Caught between the ROC’s historical identity and a fraught geopolitical external environment, Taipei is increasingly boxed-in from its inherited territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The main point: Taipei is caught in a complicated balancing act to not only assert the Republic of China’s (ROC) sovereignty claims over far-flung territories, but also seeks to differentiate its claims from those of China and highlight its adherence to international law.