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Taiwan Can’t Negotiate, Likely to Observe Rules on South China Sea

  • Ralph Jennings

In this image from the Taiwan Presidential Office, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen (center) reviews nautical charts aboard a Taiwan Navy ship before it sets out to patrol in the South China Sea from the naval base in the southern port city of Khaohsiung, Taiwan.

Taiwan is expected to follow any agreements reached by other governments that compete with its claims to nearly the entire South China Sea as a show of strategic goodwill, even though it can neither negotiate nor sign the deals.

China and an organization representing four Southeast Asian countries that claim the sea are working on the framework for a code of conduct that would help head off mishaps among fishing boats, oil rigs and coast guard vessels. Separately, China is talking to Vietnam and the Philippines about their own deals in waters that Taiwan claims.

Taiwan lacks formal diplomatic relations in Asia because China sees it as part of its own territory rather than as a sovereign state. Beijing uses its economic clout to stop other countries from pursuing economic or security deals with Taipei.

“We have limited tools in our box,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “If China signed the code of conduct, we would have no choice but follow the code of conduct. Even if we dispute, I think we would be further alienated and even be punished.”

The Pratas Islands, in the South China Sea
The Pratas Islands, in the South China Sea

Claims to 90 percent of the sea

China and Taiwan are the only governments that claim more than 90 percent of the whole sea, a 3.5 million-square-kilometer swath of rich fisheries, strategic shipping lanes and oil and gas resources.

Both support their claims with a “nine-dash line,” a demarcation based on historical fishing records. China has landfilled islets and positioned some to accommodate combat aircraft and radar systems. Taiwan holds the sea’s largest feature, Taiping Island, and the tiny Pratas island chain.

Taiwan would observe maritime deals as part of its policy of striving to share resources and preserve peace in the sea that extends from its south coast to Singapore, analysts say. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim parts of the South China Sea.

“I’ve always felt Taiwan’s best play is to be a model international citizen,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the think tank East-West Center in Honolulu. “If that is the approach Taipei decides to take, it would mean first complaining about the ongoing issue of not being treated as a claimant country, but afterward following whatever set of rules is agreed to by the others.”

Model international citizen

Taiwan believes in setting aside disputes and working toward joint development at sea, the foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday. It did not say whether it would follow agreements that exclude it, but asked that Taiwan be treated equally in talks on regional stability or on freedom of shipping and aviation.

Taiwan lost a chance to make a global impression by stepping away from its nine-dash line claim, said Euan Graham, international security director with the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.

“There was an opportunity there I think for Taiwan to get ahead of China in a way by maintaining its claim on the basis of features, but separating itself from the nine-dash line,” Graham said. “That would have been interesting, how China would have responded to that.”

Focus likely on research

Taiwan will probably focus now on oceanic environmental research with measures backing up its calls for peaceful, common use of the sea, Huang said.

Agreements between Vietnam and China cover tracts of water claimed by Taiwan, as well. China and Vietnam signed a maritime delineation deal in 2000. They’re now discussing cooperation on undersea exploration for fossil fuels.

China and the Philippines are scheduled this month to start talks on a maritime security and cooperation deal.

Taiwan-registered fishing boats, part of a fleet ranked as one of the world’s largest at $1.27 billion in 2014, sometimes work off the coast of Luzon Island in the Philippine exclusive economic zone, a coast guard official on site said.

Taipei, which is not a signatory to a United Nations law of the sea convention, and Manila reached a deal in 2015 to shun any use of force against each other’s fishing vessels in disputed waters. They did not agree to joint use.

Disregard for maritime agreements would risk a backlash against Taiwan’s policy of shifting private investment into South and Southeast Asia instead of China, where political relations are cold.

“For the sake of prosperity and also for the friendship I think we will follow whatever agreements (are) already in place,” said Alex Chiang, international relations professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Especially the government today is trying to increase contact with Southeast Asian countries, so I don’t think we’ll try to make trouble for those Southeast Asian countries.”

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