Taiwan: The most important R.O.C. in the South China Sea

Events over the last couple weeks have re-drawn attention, rightfully, to an oft-overlooked player in the South China Sea disputes, Taiwan (aka. Republic of China). SCS analyses often dismiss Taiwan’s claims as a marginal issue and is only mentioned in the context of mainland China’s claims, however as the most recent incidents with the Philippines demonstrate, Taiwan’s strategic importance to the South China Sea (and East China Sea) is actually woven into the very core of disputes.

Fishermen Wars

On May 9, a 65 year old Taiwanese fishermen named Hung Shih-cheng was shot and killed by the Philippine Coast Guard in a standoff. The PH Coast Guard claims that they shot at Mr. Hung’s vessel  to disable the engine as a self-defense mechanism because the fishing boat was attempting to ram-and-run. Eye-witness accounts through Taiwanese media however, report that the boat was struck by 30-40 bullets, which seems excessive. Mr. Hung was unarmed, accompanied on the boat by his son and two other sailors.

On May 10th, the news broke and Philippine officials acknowledged the incident and indicated investigations have began. Coast guard commander Rodolfo Diwata Isorena indicated that the 11 officers involved have been suspended from duty. On May 12, with tensions running high on both sides, Taiwan issued a 72 hour ultimatum to the Philippine authorities, demanding formal apology from the President, appropriate reparations to the fishermen’s family, and extradition of perpetrators to Taiwan for investigation to ensure “justice”. On May 15th, just minutes before the deadline, the Philippines announced that it would send its representative to Taiwan to apologize but that no extradition will occur and was unclear with regards to reparations. Taiwan subsequently rejected this apology declaring it insincere and insufficient. It announced a series of retaliatory actions, including withdrawing its diplomatic representative, conducting elevated sea patrols, and sanctions on work permits for the nearly 87,000 Filipinos working in Taiwan. The last action would prove to be costly to the Philippines which sends over a million workers overseas each year and is heavily reliant on remittances.

On May 17, Taiwan carried through with its threat to conduct joint Naval – Coast Guard drills in the SCS, the first time ever crossing the 20* latitude “temporary enforcement line” since the Taiwanese government established it in 2003. Taiwan indicated that these drills, along with heightened patrols (increase of 1-2 ships to 3-4 ships) are not a one-off occurance but will continue indefinitely, in order to ensure the safety of its fishermen.

Sqawkbox and Public Opinion

As reported by BBC, Taiwan’s media corps reported on the incident voraciously, taking a range of stances. Both Taipei’s Apple Daily  and United Daily News urged authorities not to succumb to public anger, arguing for arbitration through international maritime law, and pointing out that the Philippine government would have more flexibility to respond after their own domestic elections are over. On the other side, Central Daily News and China Times backed Taiwan government’s more aggressive response, saying that any weakness will result in the further marginalization of Taiwan’s interests.

Mainland China took upon itself to conveniently call for cross-strait cooperation in responding to Manila, as reports on the incident were featured prominently throughout mainland media. In Philippine media, the language has been equally nationalistic, many reflecting public opinion that the Philippine authorities should not apologize, that the shooting was justified, and that the government cannot show weakness. In particular, some PH pundits suggest that Taiwan is China’s lackey and that any ground given to Taiwan is also ceded to China (recall PH is currently taking to court over SCS disputes). The Philippines’ domestic political situation is volatile with elections underway, and the current administration is already under fire over mishandling of last year’s Scarborough Shoal affair.

Public and political opinion on the SCS cannot be clearly divided by Blue-Green color-lines in Taiwan for both parties support Taiwan’s 9-dash line claim. Taiwan’s sovereignty is an emotionally charged issue for many Taiwanese. On May 13, Taiwan’s 《旺报》”Want Daily” conducted a public opinion survey and found that 92% of Taiwanese believe that the Philippines should apologize and pay. 89% of Taiwanese surveyed have heard of the incident and 86% felt that authorities’ response to the incident was too weak. 70% of the interviewed believe that the Government should implement economic sanctions against the Philippines, including not allowing guest workers. 61% wanted to boycott PH goods and 38% believe Taiwan should apply political and diplomatic pressure. Only 29% believe that Taiwan should utilize military measures to achieve a quick solution. As for cross-strait cooperation in responding to the Philippines, 69% of the surveyed support cross-strait cooperation and 21% do not support this.

NOTE about Want Daily: Started in 2009, the tabloid is owned by Want Want Corp., a foodstuffs company based in Taiwan with significant business interests in the mainland. It targets Taiwan readers but focuses on mainland or cross-straits news. It is viewed by some as having a pro-Beijing slant but is by no means just a “mouthpiece” of the mainland.

Taiwan’s Claims and UNCLOS

As is with everything related to Taiwan, its maritime claims are legally ambiguous. Because it is not a recognized state, it cannot be signatory of UNCLOS but it effectively adheres to the principles and norms of UNCLOS in domestic law and administration.

The killing of fisherman Hung occurred 164 nautical miles (n.m) south-east of Taiwan, in the northeast corner of the Spratlys. This area theoretically falls within the 200 n.m exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that Taiwan could claim if it were a sovereign nation-state recognized under UNCLOS.  This area also overlaps with the Philippine’s claimed EEZ area, thus under the norms of international maritime law,  both claimants have the right to freedom of navigation and exploitation of the living and non-living resources in that area. Theoretically  if claimants have overlapping EEZ’s, they must settle through negotiations or adjudication/arbitration before a mutually agreed upon third party. However, because Taiwan does NOT have full rights as a state in the eyes of UNCLOS, its unclear what the PH is obligated or not obligated to do with Taiwan.

Taiwan was the first to occupy territories in the SCS during the 1950s as the R.O.C. refugee government escaped from mainland China. Taiwan’s strongest position in the SCS now is Pratas Islands (Dongsha) located in the north west corner and controlled in full by Taiwan. Taiwan also occupies Taiping Island, the largest island in the Spratlys, and nearby Zhongzhou Reef. Taiping Island is of extreme importance because of its size and the only source of naturally occurring freshwater in the Spratlys, making it effectively the only feature that could without question qualify as an “Island” under UNCLOS. Taiping Island is the basis that China (through Taiwan) can use to lay its claims to the Spratlys. However, located a mere 600km from Vietnam’s coast and 500km from the Philippines island of Palawan, Taiwan’s occupation of this valuable piece of real estate is also the hardest to defend.

Remilitarization & Re-assertiveness of Taiwan’s claims?

This most recent incident with the Philippines marks yet another step in what appears to be a “re-assertiveness” of Taiwan’s SCS claims. Ever since Taiwan implemented domestic law in 1998-1999 adopting in principle most of UNCLOS, the government had moved to de-militarize the SCS. However, as the actions of other claimants in the region have escalated, so has Taiwan’s position. First hints that Taiwan may be moving to re-militarize its SCS bases started in 2006, as it announced that it would build a 1,150 meter runway on Taiping Island that can accomodate large (read firepower) aircrafts. This is one of two operational airstrips in the Spratlys (the other is controlled by the Philippines) and would represent a significant boost to Taiwan’s air and anti-submarine capacity. The runway was completed in 2008. At the time, Manila said it had no problem with the build-up as Taiping Island is not one of the features the Philippines claims in the Spratlys.

In 2012, Taiwan announced that six of the twelve refurbished P-3C “Orion” maritime patrol aircrafts that it purchased from the US in 2007 would be stationed at its most southern point of Pingtung. P-3C’s have anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, making them a significant boost to Taiwan’s defnese capabilities in the SCS. Most recently, Taiwan announced in April 2013 that it would be expanding its pier on Taiping Island in order to accomodate larger ships.

R.O.C.: The Heart of the Ocean

Why is it important not to underestimate Taiwan’s importance to SCS disputes? For one, for a relatively small “nation”, it possesses outsized military maritime capacity and global economic clout. It ranks as the world’s 19th largest economy by GDP and is 22nd by percentage of GDP spent on defense. Secondly, Taiwan’s strategic location is, as described by President Ma – a trained international maritime lawyer, the exact center of maritime East Asia.

Arguably, the most important reason why Taiwan is at the heart of East Asian maritime disputes is because Taiwan is at the heart of China’s maritime claims. Many dismiss Taiwan’s claims as being secondary to China’s claims, but really Taiwan’s claims are the primary basis of China’s claims. International pundits argue why China refuses to clarify the 9-dash line claim (originated by Chiang Kai-Shek’s R.O.C. government),  its legal status, and why China refuses to engage multilaterally. Some pundits argue that China’s strategy is to continue ambiguity as a means of putting other claimants on unsteady negotiating footing. However, it can also be argued that as long as China is unable to answer the Taiwan question, it will also remain unable to settle the East China Sea and South China Sea disputes. Taiwan is the key to the geopolitical strait-jacket which binds China in all maritime sovereignty issues. 

What will the future bring for Taiwan? Cross-strait cooperation and fears that Taiwan will serve as China’s “lackey” seem unlikely and unfounded. After all, Taiwan has repeatedly resisted cooperating with China on everything from sea patrols to fisheries management to O&G exploration. Most recently, on April 10, 2013, Taiwan even signed a special agreement with Japan to establish a intervention-free fishing zone. Taiwan may be limited in its ability to negotiate on maritime disputes by its sovereignty status, but its strategic location makes it a valuable blue diamond at the heart of East Asian seas.

This post is cross-posted with redoceans.com

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