Is the Taiwan Puzzle in the South China Sea Solvable?
There’s a Chinese proverb that the crying baby always gets the milk. Amid the evolving developments in the South China Sea, it is Taiwan that is doing the crying through a series of strategic moves to spotlight its own territorial claims. First there was outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou’s late-January trip to Itu Aba (or Taiping Island), which drew a firm U.S. response; then, more recently, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense helped break news of Chinese missile launchers and radar stationed on Woody Island.
Until recently, Washington has largely overlooked Taiwanese noisemaking in the South China Sea and its peaceful development of Taiping Island. To mitigate the chances an outgoing Ma Ying-jeou or incoming Tsai Ing-wen administration may take a more assertive approach to staking Taiwanese maritime claims, the United States must necessarily put aside a tradition of strategic ambiguity in its policies toward Taiwan to clarify the extent to which the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 applies to Taipei’s South China Sea claims. Strategic clarification will give Taiwanese politicians a better sense of how far they can push the envelope in the maritime domain. A clarification of the U.S. commitment could additionally yield the opportunity for Beijing and Taipei to peacefully manage their disputes, perhaps even finding the diplomatic solutions Washington policymakers frequently encourage, or fostering cooperation in the cross-Strait relationship more broadly.
Taiping: Then and Now
Taipei’s claim to Taiping Island as Republic of China (ROC) sovereign territory has roots in the resolution of World War II. Once used as a Japanese submarine base, Taiping has been claimed by the ROC government since December 1946, with a military presence on the island since 1956. By 1980, the island was formally incorporated into the government of Taiwan’s southern port city of Kaohsiung, roughly 990 miles away.
In contrast to Beijing’s assertive reclamation efforts, Taiwan’s minimalist military footprint on Taiping is exceptionally peaceful. Taiping has become a test site for green energy technology; the island also hosts shelters for fishermen, a post office, a temple, a hospital, meteorological and satellite communication facilities, and radar surveillance. Recently improved runway and port facilities allow for periodic deliveries of personnel and essential supplies. The roughly 200 members of the Taiwanese Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force stationed on the island are tasked with safeguarding sovereignty, while ensuring both environmental protection and law enforcement. Even the runway is intended to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, rather than military operations. With no civilians living on Taiping — save one bold nurse who recently transferred her residency to the tiny outpost — there is little to defend save the island itself. Aside from a few mounted 40mm anti-aircraft guns and 120mm mortars leftover from military exercises in 2012, the absence of larger platforms such as fighter jets and frigates suggests that defending Taiping would be a difficult task, requiring first a recalibration of Taiwan’s current military posture.
Beijing and Taipei: Same Bed, Different Dreams
While Taiping is by far the most developed of Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea, it is worth noting that the Dongsha (Pratas), Nansha (Spratly), Xisha (Paracel), and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) islands and their surrounding waters are also historically claimed as inherent parts of ROC territory. As long as Taiwan continues to stake its claim to Taiping — a given, due to the scope of its development of the island — Washington would be wise to watch how Taipei and Beijing interact over the island’s status, particularly under Tsai’s leadership.
The territorial claims made by Taipei in the South China Sea archipelago are, on paper, identical to those of Beijing. The U-shaped line shown on Taiwanese maps closely resembles China’s own nine-dash line. For leaders in Beijing that affirm Taiwan as an “inseparable” part of China, there is little opposition should Taiwan seek to develop a South China Sea island. A developed Taiping, for instance, is seen as a strategic, long-term asset for Beijing when the ultimate goal of cross-Strait reunification is realized. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s official position has always been that it will not cooperate with Beijing in the South China Sea, a strategic approach often described as “brothers climbing a mountain, each on his own” (兄弟登山, 各自努力). Beijing seems to brush such stubbornness aside, reminding Taipei that the Spratly and Paracel islands have been handed down by Chinese ancestors. For Beijing, it thus becomes the shared responsibility of all Chinese people — including those on Taiwan — to safeguard the sovereignty of the islands. Yet, beyond these gentle reminders of a shared history, Beijing has largely been quiet regarding Taiwan’s development and continued claim to Taiping.
Under the Ma Ying-jeou administration, Taiwan has urged general cooperation instead of the resolution of the specific maritime disputes. Ma’s proposed South China Sea Peace Initiative (SCSPI) — deemed by his administration to be a practical, viable solution for addressing regional tensions — shifts the focus of littoral states from settling territorial disputes to the joint development of resources. Coordination and cooperation on nontraditional security issues ranging from environmental protection to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the waters must, according to Ma, necessarily trump stickier conversations on the division of sovereignty across the disputed islands.
Given the similarities between SCSPI and Ma’s strategy for the cross-Strait relationship — namely, putting cooperation before political discussions — it remains to be seen if Tsai will change Taiwan’s tactics. If her promises on Taiwan’s relations with mainland China are instructive, then there remains a possibility that she may allow the Taiwanese people to decide how claims to disputed territories across the South China Sea should be solved. Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), must further decide whether to accept The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on South China Sea sovereignty disputes. At the far end of the spectrum is the option of abandoning altogether Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea, a move that would sacrifice important sovereign control to avoid a flare in tensions with mainland China. If, however, Taiwan continues to climb the maritime disputes mountain independently from mainland China, the United States must necessarily be prepared to clearly delineate what actions Washington is willing to take in support of Taiwan.
A Strategic Puzzle for U.S. Policymakers
While no fewer than nine littoral states have territorial claims across the South China Sea, the recent uptick in Taiwan’s posturing and presence regarding its own territories presents a unique challenge for U.S. policymakers. In general, more frequent reporting of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) must continue, and a multilateral approach with the cooperation of ASEAN states will but further bolster the resolve of Washington vis-à-vis China’s rapid progress in its island reclamation strategy. But things become a bit murkier with Taiwan’s recently increased involvement in the disputed waters.
Under the TRA, the United States must “maintain the [U.S.] capacity … to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security … of the people on Taiwan.” As has been well stated elsewhere, Washington would be wise to continue to uphold its share of the TRA bargain. Since Taiping is claimed — and developed — as Taiwanese territory, this clause of the TRA arguably applies. China’s island reclamation and militarized posturing across the South China Sea could well be interpreted as a “form of coercion” threatening the security of the Taiwanese people. If Beijing ever opted to militarily seize Taiping in response to Taiwan’s movement toward formal independence, or increased de facto separation, Washington could not afford failing to respond. Even though the TRA outlines the U.S. commitment to the people on Taiwan, a grey zone exists regarding how the U.S. would come to defend people on other islands claimed by Taiwan, including in the case of a Taiping contingency.
At the same time, the United States and claimant states in the region must balance an awareness of Taiwan’s maritime claims with the one-China principle underpinning diplomatic relations with Beijing. Overt support for Taiwan’s claims across the South China Sea, as separate from Beijing’s claims, will likely be interpreted by Beijing as recognition of Taiwanese autonomy — an action that has previously generated backlash from Beijing.
In addition to the countless other recommendations scholars and analysts alike have proffered for the consideration of U.S. policymakers handling the rising tensions in the South China Sea, Washington must urgently consider the intersection of its Taiwan policy with these maritime disputes, offering strategic clarity as appropriate. Continued efforts by Taiwan to spotlight its claims will only increase pressure upon the United States to clarify its own commitments. It is not enough to simply uphold the TRA; Washington must also specify whether it would defend people not on the island of Taiwan proper. While Taiwan’s future role in the South China Sea under a new president remains uncertain, what can and should be made certain is the extent to which the United States would be willing to stand behind Taipei’s many maritime claims.
Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where she focuses on relations between mainland China and Taiwan. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS.