by Lily Hess, a 2nd year student, studying for a BA International Relations in the War Studies Department at King’s College London.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration recently issued a ruling in the case of The South China Sea Arbitration, in which the Court largely sided with the Philippines and against China’s claim to most of the South China Sea from its “Nine-Dash Line”, which it asserts that it is based on historic rights . This was seen as a victory for nations in the South China Sea against an increasingly aggressive China, who however rejected the ruling and refused to participate in the court proceedings . Yet China was not the only nation that rejected the Court of Arbitration’s judgment: Taiwan also rejected the ruling, even though it is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – or indeed, a member of the United Nations at all. Taiwan also claims most of the South China Sea, using the same Nine-Dash Line as China . However, Taiwan would benefit from dropping the Nine-Dash claim, which encompasses around 90% of the South China Sea .
To clarify, this is not an argument that Taiwan should give up all its islands in the South China Sea. Islands like Itu Aba and Pratas Island are already administered by Taiwan, although the Court ruling found that Itu Aba does not count as a habitable island and does not warrant a 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone . What this article addresses is Taiwan’s blanket claim over the South China Sea, including the Spratly islands, Paracel islands, and Scarborough Shoal. Taiwan holds very few of these disputed islands, and probably never will. Most of the islands within the Nine-Dash Line are also hotly disputed between Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei . It is impractical to conceive of defending the islands in the South China Sea against all these navies, not to mention China’s navy as well. The Taiwanese army and navy have a huge disparity against the sheer size of the Chinese military . By proclaiming their right to everything within the Nine-Dash Line, Taiwan faces a battle it cannot win.
Taiwan has existed in a politically delicate situation for decades, with the threat of military conflict constantly looming from the other side of the Taiwan Strait. As a nation it has few formal friends, and its main guarantor of security – the United States – is so inextricably tied to China’s economy that its commitment to protecting Taiwan from a potential Chinese invasion is questionable. While some would argue that closer relations between Taiwan and mainland China are the best hope for peace, it is in Taiwan’s interest to maintain close relationships with its neighbors regardless. The new Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, announced a “New Southbound Policy”, which intends to strengthen cultural and economic ties between Taiwan and ASEAN countries . If this policy is to succeed, dropping the Nine-Dash claim would take away a source of discord.
Disagreements between ownership of tiny rocks and boundaries of exclusive economic zones may seem like an obscure reason for heightening diplomatic tensions, but recently these disputes have been used to stoke nationalism within these countries. In 2013, relations between the Philippines and Taiwan suffered when the Philippine coast guard fired at a Taiwanese fishing vessel it insisted was inside its exclusive economic zone. This incident soured relations for around two months and caused the Philippines to place sanctions on Taiwan for a time . These minor territorial disputes can escalate quickly, with Taiwan’s claims putting the United States in an awkward position – them being the only country that could really protect Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. However, the United States wishes to facilitate free navigation in the South China Sea and is allied with the Philippines. Claiming most of the South China Sea causes tension between Taiwan and its usually-friendly neighbors, at a time when Taiwan cannot afford to alienate them.
As a nation with few formal diplomatic ties with other countries, Taiwan faces the challenge of staking a separate identity from mainland China. However, ironically, by sticking with its Nine-Dash Line, Taiwan is lumping itself with China. When the government of Taiwan protested against the Court ruling, China used Taiwan’s protest to bolster its own stance . Dropping its Nine-Dash Line claim would not necessarily be a concrete step towards independence, but a symbolic step – a measure that Taiwan can afford for now.
Renouncing the Nine-Dash Line would hand Taiwan a legitimacy win as well: it is not a part of the UN, and hence is not a party to UNCLOS; but by dropping the Nine-Dash Line it can present itself as adhering to international law more than China. Adhering to international law would not only strengthen its case for international recognition, but also put pressure on China to follow international law as well. After all, what Taiwan should fear the most is an aggressive China that sees itself as above laws and norms – but conversely, by asserting the validity of its territorial claims up to Nine-Dash Line, it is validating China’s right to ignore the Court as well.
Whether or not the Taiwanese government’s goal is formal independence, it should not insist on unrealistic claims to the South China Sea, which could distance itself from the South-East Asian countries with whom it should be trying to create closer ties. With $5.3 trillion worth of trade passing through the area annually , upholding navigational freedom is crucial. The Court ruling presents a unique opportunity for Taiwan to reinforce its relations with its neighbors, and nationalism does not have to clash with the international community. The South China Sea is crowded, and everyone must share.
 Permanent Court of Arbitration. (2016). The South China Sea Arbitration: (The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China) [Press Release]. Retrieved from https://pca-cpa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/175/2016/07/PH-CN-20160712-Press-Release-No-11-English.pdf
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