On February 7, 2014, Taiwan began development work on Taiping Island (Itu Aba), the largest of the Spratly archipelago, which has been under its control since 1956. It is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, and mainland China.

Taiwan’s development project comes in two parts and includes the construction of two new piers and improvements to the 1200-meter long runway built in 2008. The project also includes a 212 meter long access road, navigation guidance and other auxiliary facilities, rain water drainage improvement, landing light repairs, and a refueling facility. In December 2014, it was also reported that a lighthouse is to be built on the island.

The Taiping development project was announced by President Ma Ying-jeou in early September 2012. The Taiwan Area National Expressway Engineering Bureau under the Ministry of Transportation is responsible for the project, which will cost NT$3.3 billion (US$ 110 million) and must be completed by the end of 2015. The watertight chambers needed for construction of the piers were completed in Taiwan’s Tainan City in early November 2014. Because the contractor for the project could not find a Taiwanese ship able to transport the caissons, it turned to Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Company, a Chinese state-run company, for help. The plan to use the company’s vessel Zhenhua 7 worried some Taiwanese legislators, in particular those who from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) due to national security concerns.

Zhenhua 7 is a flag-of-convenience (FOC) ship and is registered in Libya. Because the vessel is owned by a Chinese state-run company, with Chinese crew members, however, it also raised questions concerning interpretation and application of Taiwan’s Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area. Under the Act, no Chinese vessels may enter restricted or prohibited waters in Taiwan’s territory unless permitted by the relevant authorities. The prohibited waters are 4,000 meters seaward measured from Taiping Island’s coast and the restricted waters are 6,000 meters from the coast.

The development work at Taiping Island was brought to a halt between November, 2014, and first half of January, 2015, because of these national security concerns. After consultations between the concerned legislators and the government agencies, permission was given for the Zhenhua 7 to complete its transport, but with a number of attached conditions, including inspection on board and monitoring by Taiwan’s Coast Guard vessels during the entire shipping process. The vessel arrived at Taiping Island on January 25. After unloading the caissons, it left on January 28. Taiwan’s development work on Taiping Island and the use of a mainland Chinese vessel raise a number of important questions that are relevant to Washington-Taipei-Beijing relations in the South China Sea.

First, it is Taiwan’s official position that Taipei will not cooperate with Beijing in the South China Sea. The main reason for this is that Taiwan is concerned about the security threat from mainland China and it has close security ties with the United States. In recent years, however, Beijing has stepped up its call for Cross-Strait cooperation on the South China Sea. Mainland China repeatedly reminds Taiwan that the islands and maritime rights in the South China Sea are property handed down from ancestors (zǔ chǎn) and therefore it is a common obligation for the two sides to safeguard sovereignty (zhǔ quán) and promote overall Chinese interests in the South China Sea. This helps explain why Beijing tolerated President Chen Shui-ban’s move to build a runway on Taiping Island in 2007 and 2008, despite its distaste for Chen’s pro-independence policies.

Taiwan’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are identical to mainland China’s. Taiwan’s U-shaped line is also similar, if not exactly the same, to Beijing’s nine-dash line. But Taiwan’s concern about its security ties with the United States, and Washington’s worry about Taipei’s possible cooperation with Beijing on South China Sea issues have forced Taipei to adopt an independent approach to safeguard sovereignty and maritime rights without seeking cooperation with Beijing. This approach is known as xiōnɡ dì dēnɡ shān gèzì nǔ lì (two brothers climb a mountain, each one is on his own).

Taiwan’s use of the Zenhua 7 vessel raises questions about this approach. Should we add dàn àn zhōnɡ bānɡ mánɡ (but assist secretly) to xiōnɡ dì dēnɡ shān gèzì nǔ lì? Did mainland China indeed help Taiwan in this shipping matter? Should Taiwan expect more help from the mainland or other types of under-the-table functional cooperation? This could include China allowing Taiwan to join the maritime cooperation project between the mainland and ASEAN countries, or signing a cross-Strait fisheries agreement in the South China Sea. It should be noted that on January 19, 2015, Taiwan and mainland China agreed to a joint study project on further cross-Strait economic cooperation and Taipei’s participation in the Asian regional economic integration process, in particular TPP and RCEP. Beijing also welcomes Taiwan’s participation in the so-called “One Belt and One Road” development process.

If Taiwan wants to avoid seeking help from Beijing, should it turn to the United States, the Philippines, Vietnam, or perhaps Singapore for the vessels that it needs, assuming this option is timely and makes economic sense? Would Taiwan be able to obtain such help in support of its development work on Taiping Island?

From Beijing’s perspective, allowing its vessel to transport caissons to Taiping Island not only helps Taiwan, but mainland China. Beijing may need to build its own piers on the islands it occupies in the Spratly Islands. Zenhua 7’s shipping experience may be useful as mainland China makes all-out efforts to develop the islands that it occupies in the Spratlys.

In addition, it can be argued that Taipei is assisting Beijing because mainland China considers Taiwan to be a part of China and the runway or piers built on Taiping Island may be used by mainland China in the future after reunification of the two sides. Beijing sees Taiwan’s development work on Taiping Island as a long-term strategic asset. Alternatively, if Taiwan moved towards independence, it is possible that mainland China would take Taiping Island by force. Given that Beijing is building runways and other military-related facilities on the land features it occupies near Taiping Island, including Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef, and Cuarteron Reef, this Chinese calculus cannot be overlooked. Certainly it poses a serious security threat to Taiwan.

Finally, the construction of piers and reinforced runways are also useful to support Taiping’s legal status as an island that generates a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf in accordance with Article 121 of UNCLOS. This is, in turn, relevant to the ongoing legal arbitration between Manila and Beijing. The existing runway and new piers to be built will certainly support this legal status. Since Beijing considers Taiwan a part of China, the Philippines accepts the “One China” principle in its foreign relations with mainland China, and Taiping Island is now controlled by Taiwan, it is not difficult to understand why Beijing would want to help Taiwan and why Taiwan accepted that assistance.

While other claimants in the Spratly Islands, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and mainland China, are endeavoring to expand their holdings and strengthen their control over the disputed islands that are also claimed by Taiwan, Taipei needs to take more actions so that it can remain a player in the South China Sea power game. As Taiwan’s perception of security threat from Vietnam, the Philippines, and other claimants in the area increases, Taipei has to take actions to enhance its defensive capacity on Taiping Island and to speed up its work on the island.

Taiwan has repeatedly made it clear to the countries concerned that the ROC should not be excluded from conversations about the South China Sea, including those that aim to develop a Code of Conduct. Without Beijing’s support, it seems unlikely that Taiwan will be involved in this regional security dialogue process. Likewise, Taiwan needs Beijing’s support to participate in regional economic development projects led by mainland China. Finally, as Taiwan cannot participate in the arbitral proceedings that were initiated by the Philippines in January 2013, Taipei also need to prepare an international response, because the arbitration case touches upon Taiwan’s core national interest, including the U-shaped line and sovereignty claims to the islands and waters in the South China Sea.

Where U.S.-Taiwan ties are concerned, Taipei’s development work on Taiping Island will probably increase Washington’s attention and may help to strengthen military and security cooperation with Taiwan in the South China Sea. This explains why the United States has issued no official statements asking Taiwan to stop its development work on Taiping Island.

Some additional developments will also affect Washington-Taipei-Beijing relations in the South China Sea. First, Taiwan’s presidential election is to begin next month when the DPP selects its candidate. The KMT will do the same in May. Second, it can be expected that the arbitral tribunal will hold public hearings on the arbitration case between Manila and Beijing this coming summer. Third, a series of security dialogue meetings organized by ASEAN under the chairmanship of Malaysia will take place in July and October 2015. Accordingly, Taiwan’s development work on Taiping Island will have important policy implications for Washington-Taipei-Beijing relations as these events unfold.

As President Ma considers how he might apply the East China Sea Peace Initiative to help manage disputes in the South China Sea, his visit and remarks made at the inauguration ceremony on Taiping Island for the new piers should be considered good moves, which might help the KMT in Taiwan’s 2016 president election. But will this development help maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea? Time will tell.

About Yann-huei Song

Yann-huei Song is a research fellow in the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan. He has broad academic interests covering ocean law and policy studies, maritime security, and disputes in the East and South China Seas.