At least while President Ma remains in office, Taiwan is not remaining passive either politically or diplomatically re the South China Sea (SCS). Nor should we assume that its choice – during Ma or afterward – is limited to the two extreme options of either endorsing Beijing’s questionable and vague claims or surrendering Taiwan’s claims to the SCS under the mantle of the Republic of China (ROC).
A more subtle policy may be emerging, one that retains China’s territorial claims and the maritime boundaries that attach to them under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) while veering away from the 9-dash line and its controversial ambiguities that the Philippine UNCLOS arbitration tribunal may soon sweep away.
It is worth studying the statement issued October 31 by the ROC’s MOFA. The ROC seems to be clarifying its position, including some important differences with the Mainland. Although it rejects the Philippine UNCLOS arbitration tribunal’s jurisdiction as not binding upon it (after all, it has been excluded from the proceedings since it is excluded from UNCLOS), it repeatedly emphasizes that its claims are “based on UNCLOS”. It claims all the islands in dispute “as well as their surrounding waters”. It seems to be emphasizing “surrounding waters” as generally understood in international law (i.e., under UNCLOS) without invoking the 9-dash line’s most expansive view of what “surrounding waters” might mean if history were invoked to override UNCLOS. Moreover, it pointedly endorses freedom of navigation and overflight and implicitly fails to support the actions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in converting mere reefs into islands by the manner in which it demonstrates that the feature that it has long occupied and developed, Itu Aba (unlike other contested features including Subi reef), is a real island that can be claimed as “territory” and has a 200-mile EEZ as well as a 12-mile territorial sea. Taiwan is trying to steer between Scylla and Charybdis.
One of Xi Jinping’s motives in meeting Ma may well be the desire to shore up virtually the only support the PRC thus far has elicited from other jurisdictions for its SCS claims. ROC defection from the 9-dash line, especially before the UNCLOS tribunal’s final decision, would leave the PRC without any respectable support for its Gargantuan appetite.