On 12 July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague issued a ruling regarding the Philippines’ case against China’s claims in the South China Sea. Taiwan, which claims sovereignty over the South China Sea islands, is also affected by the decision. In recent months, Taiwan has actively promoted the fact that Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba, the largest of the Spratly islands, is a naturally formed island that can sustain human habitation and an economic life of its own as stipulated in Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, the award rules in favour of the Philippines, meaning that Taiping Island is considered a rock, not an island.
According to Taiwan’s presidential office, the government of the Republic of China does not accept any decisions that undermine the rights of the ROC, and declares that they have no legally binding force on the ROC. During the arbitration process, Taiwan is an often-neglected party, which is not invited to participate in the multilateral negotiations. However, Taiwan has tried to remind the world that it is also one of the claimants in the South China Sea.
Taiwan has effective control over the 0.51-squre kilometre Taiping Island since 1956. From this January to March, the Taiwan government took a series of actions to prove that Taiping Island has fresh water, and is able to grow crops and even raise animals. The island is also used to provide humanitarian rescue services for the fishing boats in that area. There is sufficient evidence to prove that Taiping Island is an island, in accordance with the definition stipulated in the UNCLOS. Thus, Taiping Island is entitled to claim a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. To help the world better understand the real situation of Itu Aba, the government invited domestic and international media to visit the island, so the journalists could see for themselves the reality.
Right after the award was rendered, on 13 July, President Tsai Ing-wen boarded the Di Hua Frigate, which was to depart to patrol the South China Sea. In her remarks, President Tsai said the voyage was meant to demonstrate the Taiwan people’s resolution to defend their national interests. Taiwan’s presidential office pointed out that “the government of the Republic of China stresses 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.” So far, Tsai has not ruled out the possibility of visiting Taiping Island herself to claim sovereignty, but there is no timetable for such an act.
Former President Ma Ying-jeou, who set foot on Taiping Island on 28 January, a few months before he stepped down on 20 May, published an article in one of Taiwan’s major newspapers on July 16. He proposed ten suggestions, including reaffirming the ROC’s sovereignty over Taiping Island and clarifying the status of the island, asking the Ministry of the Interior to delimit and announce Taiping Island’s baseline, territorial sea, contiguous zone and 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, requesting the Philippines to start negotiations regarding the overlapping EEZ, and having the Ministry of Education to include the study of the island’s history and geography in the textbook guidelines, etc. He also recognised the government’s attitude of not accepting the award, calling upon the people to develop the island and defend Taiwan’s national interest.
As the situation in the South China Sea has become increasingly complicated, Taiwan must find a way out for its voices to be heard. Though the award is not binding, it is vital for the new government to manage this issue carefully and prevent tensions from escalating in this region.
Betty Chen is the East Asia Special Correspondent for The Sunday Guardian.