The tension among South China Sea claimants seems to have temporarily eased since the South China Sea arbitration award was issued in summer 2016. Both the Philippines and Taiwan underwent a change of ruling party shortly before the award, and the attitudes of both toward China shifted as a result. While Manila now seeks rapprochement with Beijing, the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei has put more political distance between itself and the Mainland even while seeking to keep its promise to maintain the status quo. It is against this backdrop that the Taiwanese government has adjusted its South China Sea policy and tried to strike a cautious balance.

Following the 2016 arbitral award, Taipei sent an important signal by delicately shifting its position regarding the U-shaped line, which was the original basis for Beijing’s “nine-dash line”. In its statement responding to the award, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not mention “history” or “historical use” of the South China Sea at all—terms that appeared in statements under the previous administration of President Ma Ying-jeou. This suggests that, unlike Beijing, Taipei does not claim historic rights or waters within the U-shaped line. That position is consistent with the arbitral award, which invalided China’s nine-dash line as a claim to historic rights. In the same statement, Taiwan said that it is entitled to all rights in accordance with international law, and specifically the “law of the sea” (a reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS). It is worth pointing out that “law of the sea” was not explicitly mentioned in any statement issued by previous administration.

A subtle shift in position is also evident in the Policy Guidelines put forth by the Tsai government after the arbitration. Those guidelines describe “Four Principles and Five Actions” to guide Taiwan’s South China Sea policy. In the guidelines, Taipei stated that it would increase the quotas for international scientists to conduct scientific research on Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba, or Taiping, island in the Spratlys. Taipei would cooperate with different organizations to make Itu Aba a center of humanitarian assistance.

Under these guidelines, Taiwan has held two humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises in the waters around the island in 2016 and 2017. When Minister of the Interior Yeh Jiunn-rong paid a visit to Itu Aba in August 2016, he declared that Taipei would install more scientific devices on the island to monitor the impact of climate change in the South China Sea. By investing such resources into Itu Aba, Taipei has sent a credible message to other South China Sea claimants that even if Taiwan is not able to be a formal party to UNCLOS, it is willing to provide public goods in the South China Sea and cooperate with other claimants to peacefully manage the disputes through marine conservation programs, humanitarian assistance, and joint development. Arguably, Taipei has come to regard the South China Sea as a shared resource, at least to a certain extent.

Aside from the Tsai government’s response, the 2016 arbitral award provided a new driver for South China Sea policy debates among Taiwanese lawmakers and civil society. One of the most important policy debates pertains to the legal status of Itu Aba. The arbitral tribunal ruled that no maritime feature in the Spratly Islands can generate an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf, but Taiwanese citizens generally reject that finding on the grounds that Taiwan was not invited to take part in the arbitration. Several Taiwanese scholars have therefore advocated that Taipei should formally declare territorial baselines around and an EEZ from Itu Aba. That is not politically feasible given Taipei’s post-arbitration stance on South China Sea policy, but the debate over whether to continue claiming a full EEZ and continental shelf entitlement from Itu Aba is going to continue.

On top of the legal status of Itu Aba, there are several other post-arbitration policy debates ongoing in Taiwan. For example, should Taipei simply accept the arbitration outcome? Should it abandon the U-shaped line altogether? If not, should Taipei explicitly clarify the meaning of the line, and under what circumstances? All of these questions are difficult to answer and any action taken may deviate from President Tsai’s status-quo policy.

Taiwanese experts are also debating broader and more long-term South China Sea policy questions. For example, how will Itu Aba be managed in the future? How should Taiwan adjust its official discourse surrounding the South China Sea? Should the government revisit or re-draft the suspended 1993 South China Sea Policy Guidelines? How could Taiwan participate in regional mechanisms in the South China Sea, given its unique international political status? How should Taipei respond to the China-ASEAN Framework on the Code of Conduct (COC) announced last year, or on any future legally binding COC which excluded Taiwan? None of these questions has a simple answer, but scholars will continue to pressure the government to grapple with them and keep an eye on shifting dynamics among the other South China Sea claimants which might have an impact on Taiwan.

It is not easy for Taiwan to strike a balance on South China Sea policy amid a rapidly changing international environment. But Taipei has nonetheless managed to gradually shift its legal stance toward greater consistency with UNCLOS and the arbitral award, at least in practice, by not mentioning history or historical use in the South China Sea. Moreover, the Four Principles and the Five Actions policy guidelines have sent a clear signal to the international community that Taipei is willing to regard the South China Sea as a shared resource, and is able to provide public goods and manage the disputes via multilateral mechanisms. All in all, Taipei’s South China Sea policy is now more consistent than not with international law.

Header photo from the Flickr account of Office of the President, Taiwan, and used under Creative Commons license.

About Chi-Ting Tsai

Chi-Ting Tsai is an assistant professor of international law in the Department of Political Science, National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan. He received his J.S.D. from Cornell Law School. His specialized fields of interest are law of the sea, East and South China Sea disputes, international human rights and U.S. constitutional law.