The arbitral tribunal’s ruling from The Hague has denied the status of Taiping Island, which has been under Taiwan’s effective control, as an “island”, and reduced it into “rocks”, dealing a heavy blow to Taiwan. Taiwan “Foreign Minister” David Lee pointed out: What the arbitral panel had come up with is “the worst scenario” anticipated, which has put Taiwan in a political dilemma.
Public opinion in the island is dissatisfied not only with the ruling’s addressing Taiwan as “Taiwan Authority of China”, believing it has demeaned Taiwan’s “status as sovereign state”; but also with its influence on Taiwan’s claims by announcing the “U-shaped line” invalid.
Taiping Island is not within the scope of the Philippine-initiated arbitration. The arbitral tribunal, however, spontaneously expanded its authority and declared that the Nansha Islands, including Taiping Island, are rocks or reefs, depriving Taiwan’s right to claim 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zone for the island. There is a prevailing consensus in Taiwan that since it is neither a signatory to the UNCLOS, nor a party in the arbitration, it can completely ignore the ruling, but the decision has seriously damaged Taiwan’s legal standing, and its rights in corresponding waters, resulting in lasting substantive harm.
The Democratic Progressive Party authorities, after issuing an official statement on the ruling clarifying Taiwan’s official stance, have resorted to a very low-profile approach to the matter. Tsai Ing-wen boarded the military ship that was to be dispatched to Taiping Island, yet didn’t join the patrol. The delicate approach revealed that the Tsai administration is under pressures from various sources. First, former leaders of the island, no matter their political camps, all asserted sovereignty over Taiping Island. Chen Shui-bien presided over the inaugural ceremony for Taiping Island’s airport, demonstrating the resolve to safeguard the integrity of maritime and territorial sovereignty; Ma Ying-jeou has done everything possible in that regard: He organized an exhibition of historical materials regarding the South China Sea; on multiple occasions personally expounded Chinese rights and interests within the “U-shaped line” in the capacity of an expert in international law; and invited international scholars and media representatives to Taiping Island to prove the island is fully qualified as an “island” as the UNCLOS defines, for it satisfies the condition of having the conditions to sustain human subsistence and its own economic life. Such deeds by former leaders have all mounted pressures on Tsai.
The second layer of pressure comes from the local public. Tsai claimed in her inaugural speech on May 20 that, having been elected in accordance with the island’s “constitution”, she has an obligation to safeguard the “sovereignty” and “territory” of the “Republic of China”, and stated that the East and South China Sea issues should be handled under the principle of shelving disputes and engaging in joint development. But the ruling makes people feel their common sense has been challenged, and rights and interests damaged. The 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone surrounding Taiping Island has been a traditional fishery for Taiwan’s fishermen. The ruling has compromised the existing rights and interests of local fishermen, and increased the risk that such neighboring countries as Vietnam and the Philippines could harass or forcefully seize fishing vessels from Taiwan. The “National Fishing Association” has pressed the Tsai administration to actively safeguard current rights and interests of the “country” and its fishermen.
Then there is the pressure from the United States. The US has always hoped that Taiwan would not join hands with the mainland on the South China Sea issue, instead keep a low profile, and abide by its strategic arrangements in the Asia-Pacific. The arbitration confirmed the reality that Taiwan is a chess piece on the US’ strategic chessboard. Tsai Ing-wen has vowed on multiple occasions that security-wise, Taiwan would be on the same side with the US-Japan “values alliance”, keeping pace with the US on the South China Sea issue, and “respecting international law and the UNCLOS”. Neither Ma’s utmost efforts to prove Taiping Island’s status as an island, nor Tsai’s assurances, however, have made any difference to the US, because the latter has its own self-interests and strategic arrangements.
Judging from the Tsai authorities’ constant vows to “respect international law and the UNCLOS” prior to the ruling, and from its repeated statements on not accepting the arbitration afterward, they have either been blindly optimistic, ill-informed, or grudgingly swallowing a bitter fruit. Most likely is the third possibility. That the ruling legally defined all islands and features in the South China Sea as “rocks” not only exposed the void and hypocrisy of the “values alliance”, but also demonstrated that the US is in complete disregard of Taiwan’s interests while carrying out its own Asia-Pacific strategy, concentrating solely on those of its own in the South China Sea.
But that doesn’t mean this is an all-crisis, no-opportunity scenario. If Tsai wants to lift Taiwan out from the South China Sea dilemma in the wake of the arbitration, Tsai needs to face the root causes of the problem, borrow wisdom from predecessors, and find a viable way out. For that, Tsai should change her ambiguous and passive stance regarding the South China Sea issue.
The central problem in the Tsai administration’s South China Sea policy is that Taiwan’s “U-shaped line”, including its “sovereignty” claim for Taiping Island derived from historical rights arising from “first possession”. But based on its pro-independence philosophy and current political reality, the Tsai administration is not willing to associate Taiwan’s rights to Taiping Island with China’s historical rights. Out of its desire to split from the mainland, it has one-sidedly emphasized the UNCLOS, while avoiding any mention of historical rights. Such self-contradictory thinking and policies have rendered Taiwan a political instrument for other countries. The arbitration has declared the failure of Tsai’s South China Sea policy.
Though the ruling has been published, its impacts are yet to fully present themselves. Given Taiwan’s peculiar status and its delicate role, although the Tsai administration is trapped in a political dilemma, it does have ways out: First, come up with a South China Sea policy with a clear and proactive position, protect fishermen’s interests, and make sovereignty claims like her predecessors. Second, give up unrealistic expectations on the US-Japan “values alliance”, reconsider its role in the South China Sea issue. Third, with an open mind and strategic insight, look at the history, present, and future of the Chinese nation, link Chinese history up with Taiwan’s future, and corresponding rights to Taiping Island.