One question that was repeatedly asked as Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) prepared to take office in Taiwan was the position that her administration would adopt on the South China Sea territorial dispute, a flashpoint that now threatens to drag the region into war. Will President Tsai impose major changes on Taiwan’s claims, or will she uphold the Kuomintang’s 60-year-old claims to almost the entire sea area?
So far neither the administration nor the Democratic Progressive Party has said much. In a short press release on Jan. 27, the DPP said it would continue to insist on the sovereignty claims in the South China Sea under UNCLOS and international law, and “will not waver” in its position, a formulation that seems to have been vague by design.
A regular press briefing by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday suggests that Taipei’s position will remain consistent with past claims.
Answering questions by reporters, MOFA spokesman Eleanor Wang (王珮玲) said the government would retain the Republic of China’s claims to the Pratas Islands (Donsha, 東沙), Spratly Islands (Nansha 南沙), Xisha Islands (西沙), Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha, 中沙) and their surrounding waters.
The area, which covers almost the entirety of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, is the ROC’s “historic” land and maritime territory, Wang said, adding that this position was “indisputable” under international law. Taipei will also maintain control over the 1,400-meter-long Taping Island (Itu Aba), which features a 1,200-meter runway, and other features, she said.
As it maintains its sovereignty claims, Taipei will encourage peaceful resolution and sharing of natural resources in the region, said Wang, who also was spokesperson for the ministry under Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
For people who were hoping that, given the strong mandate it received in the January elections, the Tsai administration would break with longstanding claims by the KMT and past ROC governments, such news may seem disappointing. As Forbes editorialized following Wang’s comments, by extending its “Teflon stance” on the South China Sea, the Tsai administration will “delight a so-far suspicious China but keep Southeast Asian countries on alert.” The reason it would “delight” Beijing is that retaining the claims, which are strikingly similar to those made by China, Taipei would maintain the illusion, long cultivated by Beijing, that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are of one mind when it comes to “defending” their territory against external aggression.
In reality, the reason why the Tsai administration feels compelled to signal its intention to uphold longstanding ROC claims to the South China Sea has much more to do with cross-strait relations than a genuine belief in the notion that the sea area belongs to Taiwan or a commitment to defending those.
In fact, if President Tsai had the liberty to implement a policy that truly reflected public opinion and reality, that policy would conceivably involve a major shift in Taipei’s position on the territorial dispute. Unlike China, the great majority of people in Taiwan couldn’t care less about the South China Sea, which never served as a rallying point for nationalistic fervor. From the perspective of the national interest, a more rational policy would entail retaining control of key sea lines of communication and features so as to protect Taiwan against a naval blockade while dropping the outlandish claim to the near entirety of the South China Sea—and that may in fact be the real, albeit unstated, policy of the Tsai administration. Additional advantages of doing so would be to defuse unnecessary tensions with potential allies in the region and to dispel fears that Taiwan and China are joining efforts, as Beijing often claims, to counter other claimants.
But Taipei’s official position on the issue cannot say that, as it is held hostage by the contentious relationship between Taipei and Beijing. A clean break in Taipei’s claims to the South China Sea would signal a substantial shift away from the ROC constitution and the “one China” illusion that continues to buttress Beijing’s policy vis-à-vis Taiwan. Since President Tsai has vowed to continue dialogue with Beijing under (among other things) the “ROC constitutional framework”—one of the concessions she has made to China to ensure stability in the Strait—immediately abandoning ROC claims to the sea area would have threatened to derail her plans, and could very well have alarmed Beijing.
Once again, the politics of the Taiwan Strait are forcing officials on both sides to take public stances that may not be entirely reflective of actual policy. We will have to wait to see what President Tsai’s real policy on the South China Sea will look like. We can expect that her position on international arbitration, resource sharing, freedom of navigation and other issues will be better aligned with international norms than Beijing’s. Her government should also be encouraged to distance itself from the gradual process of militarization of Taiping Island initiated by her predecessor, which only contributed to further tensions in the region.