14 Jul Dear Taiwan: The PCA Ruling Does Not Threaten Your Control Over Taiping Island
Much to many observers’ surprise, the first country to take aggressive action in response to the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea tribunal’s award this week was Taiwan. New Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s government issued a blistering statement stating that the arbitral award was unacceptable and that it has no “legally binding force on the ROC.” It noted that the tribunal ruled that Taiping Island and other Spratly land features were rocks rather than islands. “This decision severely jeopardizes the legal status of the South China Sea Islands, over which the ROC exercises sovereignty, and their relevant maritime rights.”
More significantly, President Tsai moved up the departure date of an ROC naval ship that was scheduled to conduct a patrol in that region. In a speech made before the departure of the ship, she announced that the frigate was being dispatched to display Taiwan’s resolve in defending its national interests. She further warned that the arbitral award had “gravely harmed” Taiwan’s rights in the South China Sea.
Tsai’s remarks were disappointing for those looking for the new president to moderate Taiwan’s expansive South China Sea claims. In fact, her statement was usefully trumpeted by the Chinese government and media as a sign of cross-strait Chinese solidarity.
I have never understood the Taiwanese government’s obsession with maintaining its expansive claims in the South China Sea. It is a waste of government resources to protect a fishing industry that doesn’t really deserve so much protection. I am particularly surprised that the current Taiwan president is acting so aggressively to protect Taiping Island’s status as an “island” under UNCLOS entitled to an exclusive economic zone. As far as I understand it, Taiwan has not actually tried to enforce an EEZ around Taiping Island, nor has it tried to exploit any hydrocarbons or minerals in the EEZ. So as a practical matter, the award will not require the Taiwanese government to change its policy much at all. There is no “grave harm” to Taiwan’s national interests here. In fact, the award should have almost no meaningful practical effect on Taiwan at all.
So why the big fuss? It is possible that Tsai is using the South China Sea issue to build a little goodwill in China. It is also possible that Tsai is feeling pressure from legislators in Taiwan who have been accusing her of failing to adequately protect Taiwan’s interests in the South China Sea. One former legislature even accused her of planning to lease Taiping Island to the U.S.
All of this is a missed opportunity. Tsai could have issued a statement saying that Taiwan “respects” the ruling even though Taiwan is not bound by it. She could have then said that Taiwan will act in conformity with the award. This would have required Taiwan to do nothing new, give up nothing at all. It would have curried favor for Taiwan in the international community, a place it desperately wants to be part of and needs the support of. Being the only country (?) in the world that sides unequivocally with China on this award is not a good look for Taiwan. One hopes the Tsai government will re-think its approach.