Taiwan ponders claim over disputed sea

By Ko Shu-ling, Kyodo News

Posted at Jun 29 2015 07:15 PM | Updated as of Jun 30 2015 04:05 AM

TAIPEI - In late May, Taiwan presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party said she would not abandon the island's claim to the Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island, part of the Spratly chain in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

In itself, the remark was not surprising, and she followed it with the usual stipulation that the ongoing disagreement over sovereignty in the region should be dealt with peacefully in accordance with international law.

Curious, however, was what Tsai did not say.

She did not expand her claim to include the entire South China Sea, which is the official position of her party and of the Taiwan government since 1947 when the Republic of China claimed the busy waterway and its thousands of largely uninhabited islets, atolls, reefs and cays after Japan relinquished sovereignty over the extensive Spratly and Paracel groups following World War II.

Tsai's silence about the larger territorial claim is notable for several reasons.

First, with Taiwan's 2016 presidential election approaching, the South China Sea provides Tsai with a platform whereby to distinguish the DPP from its main opponent, the current ruling Nationalist Party (KMT).

"The DPP could include the KMT's inflexible position on the 11-dash line as another example of how closely KMT policies are aligned with those of mainland China and, in case of the South China Sea, against the interests and positions of Southeast Asian states, the U.S. and Japan," said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou has responded vigorously in recent months to questions on the issue, saying Taiwan would never abandon the so-called 11-dash line, a U-shaped boundary that defines its South China Sea claim, stretching south and west of the island to enclose nearly all of the strategically sensitive, potentially resource-rich region.

The claim includes waters claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and even Indonesia as part of their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones.

Given his party's pro-China stance, and China's nearly identical claim based on the original ROC declaration, analysts agree that Ma has little choice but to remain committed to the policy, despite the island having little hope of ever prevailing in it, especially as China's claim would undoubtedly supersede Taiwan's own.

In addition to alienating other claimants, who understandably see Taiwan as just another face of Chinese aggression, Ma's position on the South China Sea has added fuel to claims at home that he has become a Chinese puppet.

All constitute an advantage for Tsai, who by limiting her adherence to the long-standing claim identifies herself as a candidate both independent and politically pragmatic, while remaining true to her pledge to uphold the status quo in cross strait affairs.

Tsai's silence on Taiwan's larger South China Sea claim is also significant because, as the main opposition candidate for the 2016 presidential election, she might well be the country's next leader, and being soft on dash-line orthodoxy could have serious repercussions.

If as president Tsai were to renounce Taiwan's blanket claim to the South China Sea, it would clearly please other vested parties, including the United States, which has expressed increasing concern over Chinese bullying in the region.

More important, it would undermine the legitimacy of China's position, which was based, once again, on the same 1947 ROC declaration as Taiwan's, while altering the 11-dash claim to nine dashes.

In June last year, China published a new map with 10 lines, extending its dash-line claim to incorporate Taiwan more clearly.

Taiwan has said little about the new map, and for good reason.

"It is highly ironic that Taipei shares China's 10-dashed line claim, which includes a subtle reminder of China's threat to use force against Taiwan," said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based East-West Center.

By reversing course on South China Sea policy, a DPP government would extract Taiwan from such self-compromising entanglements.

And by taking the moral high ground, Taiwan might also attract greater regional support for its own struggle against China.

Not everyone agrees with this line of reasoning, including hard-line elements within Taiwan, and others who advise caution.

Should Taiwan formally abandon its claim, "Beijing is likely to view this as an inflammatory act with potentially severe repercussions for cross-strait relations," said Lynn Kuok, a fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies of Brookings Institution.

Yet powerful voices encourage change.

While Washington has said that it takes no position on the competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, U.S. officials and scholars have urged China and Taiwan to clarify, adjust or abandon their claims to bring them into accordance with the international law of the sea.

The dash-line claims are something "somebody sketched out and just said, 'It's all ours'," William Stanton, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, told an international symposium in September last year.

Stanton added that while Taiwan likes to say it abides by international law, it has fallen short of that goal in the South China Sea.

Indeed, the claims by Taiwan and China are fraught with legal problems.

The ROC Constitution on which both base their claims was drawn up in 1947 when the ROC government still ruled China, and since then neither has signed many of the treaties they cite to bolster their claims.

In addition, while the ROC was a signatory to the 1952 treaty in which Japan relinquished control over the Spratly and Paracel island groups, who would take them over was not specified, leaving their status legally undetermined.

If Tsai believes her party may benefit from a more conciliatory approach on Taiwan's South China Sea claim, she is not alone.

Two senior DPP members recently suggested that continuing the 11-dash-line claim may not be worth it.

Parris Chang, former deputy secretary general of the National Security Council, proposed that the party focus exclusively on Taiping Island, which it already occupies.

Chang said he also wants to see the DPP have a policy different from that of the KMT, which he criticizes for being excessively friendly to China.