Once upon a time the United States supported Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. The American military even gifted a fleet of vessels to the Chinese navy (then virtually shipless) to claim the Spratly Islands, which are now claimed in part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The biggest of the islands was even renamed Taiping in honour of one of the warships that sailed there following Japan’s surrender after the Second World War.
But this was in 1946 when mainland China was still controlled by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT). The Taiwanese still control Taiping (also known as Itu Aba, the largest of the naturally occurring islets in the Spratlys), a legacy of the KMT fleeing to Taiwan in 1949.
That made it a flashpoint again two weeks ago when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that Chinese maritime ambitions – in this case, the People’s Republic of China – in the region were “completely unlawful”.
Pointedly, the statement came out on the fourth anniversary of a judgement from an international tribunal at The Hague that rejected Chinese claims to the Spratly archipelago. It was the first time that the US government had publicly endorsed the ruling, although the announcement from Washington was still a little awkward. Although the US government now supports the tribunal’s decision, America is not a signatory to UNCLOS – the Law of the Sea Convention that underpins the verdict (while China is a party to UNCLOS, Beijing refused to participate in the 2016 arbitration and rejected its decision outright).
The same ruling, which included the designation of the island of Taiping as a rock and not an island (and thus not entitled to a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone) angered some in Taiwan because it assigned the territory a status that eroded Taiwanese claims to the same jurisdictional reach.
So there was a furore when Taiwan’s government issued a statement apparently welcoming Pompeo’s comments on the tribunal earlier this month.
Ex-KMT leader and former president Ma Ying-jeou was the first to speak out, challenging his successor, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, to defend Taiwan’s “sovereignty”.
“Is our foreign ministry also suggesting that Taiping is a rock but not an island? How would our soldiers defending Taiping Island feel in the face of such self-castration?” he asked. Ma also challenged President Tsai to visit Taiping – just as he had done himself in 2016, a few days before stepping down as the island’s leader (he brought back a bottle of fresh water as proof that the territory is self-sustaining).
As Taiwan’s United Daily News notes, Tsai’s administration has found itself in a more difficult position as tensions harden over claims to the disputed waters.
Chen Hu, the editor of World Military Affairs, a Beijing-based magazine run by a division of the army, even speculated earlier this month that the American military might seize Taiping (with its 1.2-kilometre runway) as a springboard, should it decide to launch attacks on other islands in the South China Sea under Beijing’s control. The Economist has also been warning of a growing risk of military conflict in the area, advising that “the last place the minnows want to be is in the middle of a clash between the South China Sea’s two big fish”.
Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, the nation which brought the case to The Hague in the first place, has taken that advice, declaring on Monday that he didn’t favour confronting Beijing over the South China Sea as it was “already in possession of the property”.
But Tsai’s approach has been less conciliatory, including angering Beijing this month with a $620 million purchase of an upgraded missile system from the US (see WiC505). That was another reminder that Taiwan remains the ‘most disputed’ island of all and could also trigger a ‘hot war’ (see this week’s “Ask Mei”).
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