FROM a historian-scholar’s perspective, the South China Sea is not only “Asia’s Cauldron,” as Robert D. Kaplan described, but also a complex and dangerous powder keg of the Asia Pacific region.
The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has added some dynamites and fuel to the impending ignition of the said powder keg. In real historical sense, the PCA award has ushered in the end of a stable Pacific era and the rapid rise of Chinese nationalism as well as the pent-up fury of the Chinese nation over the loss of their historical rights in the South China Sea. If the relevant leaders do not handle the powder keg wisely and fairly, there is a possibility of Sino-US conflict in the South China Sea. The geopolitical tension will surely lead to the further deterioration of the Asia-Pacific peace, stability and the economic downturn of relevant countries.
After the PCA ruling, it is also worthy to note that the Republic of China (Taiwan, ROC), a peaceful, law-abiding and non-threatening Taiwan/ROC has turned out to be the biggest innocent victim of the PCA award. The PCA’s decisions have seriously impinged on the legitimate rights and national interests of Taiwan/ROC over the South China Sea Islands and their relevant waters.
Despite the facts that Taiwan/ROC has exercised effective administration and sovereignty over the Taiping Island (Itu Aba) since 1946, and that Taiping meets the criteria of an island and it has sufficient freshwater to sustain human habitation and an economic life of its own, the Taiping Island was unexpectedly defined by the PCA as a “rock,” instead of an “island.” To the government and people of Taiwan/ROC, the tribunal’s decision is unacceptable, unfair and double standards. The reasons are as follows:
Firstly, the name is incorrect and humiliating as the ROC (Taiwan) is referred to as “Taiwan Authority of China,” an inappropriate designation that is demeaning to the status of the ROC (Taiwan) as a sovereign state.
Secondly, Taiping Island was not originally included in the scope of the arbitration, but the tribunal took it upon itself to expand its authority, declaring the ROC (Taiwan)-governed Taiping Island as a “rock.” This decision severely undermines the ROC (Taiwan)’s rights on the South China Sea islands and their waters.
Thirdly, during the arbitration process, the tribunal neither consulted with nor invited the ROC (Taiwan) to participate in this case. The ROC (Taiwan) voices and views were not present during the arbitration process. The award is, therefore, unfair and unacceptable to the ROC (Taiwan).
Fourthly, the criteria used by the arbitral tribunal to define an island are too narrowly-defined and legalistically contentious and, as a result, the criteria have lost its fairness and in contrast to the international community’s commonly accepted norm and common perception.
In fact, the tribunal has created a brand new definition, or criteria, of a “rock.” By this new definition and criteria, many Pacific Island countries and many islands owned by various countries are “rocks” because they don’t have sufficient fresh water, and they need to import food supply.
From the ROC (Taiwan) point of view, the Taiping Island is definitely an “island,” not a mere “rock” because of the facts that the Taiping Island has fresh water and can sustain human habitation and an economic life of its own.
By pointing out the drawbacks of the tribunal ruling, I have no intention to challenge the stance of the Philippines. What I want to indicate is that the decision has further complicated the South China Sea situation. Contrary to the common belief, the ruling has caused more difficulties and implications for the resolution of the South China Sea disputes.
As we know, Taiwan is a genuine friend of the Philippines. Whenever there are natural calamities in the Philippines, the ROC (Taiwan) has always been one of the first countries to extend humanitarian assistance and helping hands. We share the common values of freedom, democracy, free media, and similar culture and destiny.
Moreover, in time of a new era for our two countries, as the ROC (Taiwan) government under President Tsai Ing-wen is implementing the New Southbound Policy, the Philippines has been on top of the agenda as the gateway to Asean countries and as one of the most important countries for Taiwan to expand multifaceted cooperation and partnership.
Strategically, a democratic Taiwan is an important strategic buffer for the national security of the Philippines and the US. As the ROC (Taiwan) controls the access between Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia as well as the first islands chain, the ROC (Taiwan) and the Philippines should sit down and discuss the disputes of the South China Sea. The disputes should be resolved peacefully through multilateral negotiations. The ROC (Taiwan) is willing and committed to working with all states concerned to settle disputes of the South China Sea through multilateral consultations and dialogues conducted on a basis of equality, just and fairness.
I am sure that the inclusion of the ROC (Taiwan) in the process of consultations and negotiations will be conducive to the enhancement of peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region.