Taiwan’s Confused Response To PCA Ruling

Taiwan’s DPP government continues to be divided over how to respond to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) decision in the South China Sea case. In a surprising move, the PCA arbitrators ruled that Taiping Island/Ita Aba, is administered by Taiwan as a subdivision of the city of Kaohsiung, is a rock, not an island. Therefore, Taiwan is only entitled to 12 nautical miles of control without the additional 200 miles of exclusive economic zone. After an initial angry reaction from Tsai Ing-Wen, the Taiwanese government began to backpedal on the rhetoric regarding Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the DPP continues to split and not formulate a coherent response to the challenge that the PCA ruling presents to Taiwan’s control over the region.

Taiwan was caught off-guard by the PCA decision that declared Taiping Island to be a rock. Taiping Island is part of the disputed Spratly Islands, but it was not among the islands that were submitted for arbitration by the Philippines. Furthermore, it appears that Tsai had believed the United States would not allow Taiping Island, which is controlled by an ally and has naturally occurring freshwater sources, to become a rock. Tsai had tried to implement a number of pro-American initiatives following her assuming power, including trying to join the American-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and allowing American pork imports into Taiwan. Many in Taiwan believe the result of the arbitration is a slap in Taiwan’s face by the Americans and the Japanese.

Publically, the DPP has apparently split into many different factions, each of which is advocating a different approach. Some DPP legislators, such as legislator Huang Wei-cher, support a more hardline approach. These include calling for Tsai to personally go to Taiping Island, send warships to the region to drive away the expected foreign fishermen that will be sailing into Taiwan’s previous Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), protecting Taiwanese fishermen from other states’ coast guards, and make a firm statement that would reject the PCA’s arbitration results. Other DPP legislators are more cautious. For instance, some wish to avoid a stance that would appear to be too “hardline” for the United States or that would make Taiwan seem to align with the People’s Republic of China in the eyes of the world. They advocate negotiations with local states rather than using any hardline display of force. There are also those, such as DPP legislator Yeh Yi-jin, that believe the entire fiasco is former president Ma Ying-Jeou’s fault. They reason that, had former president Ma Ying-Jeou not provoked the United States by flying to Taiping Island in January, and had he not challenged Japan over the issue of the Okinotori Islands, the United States and Japan would not have been as angry at Taiwan and would have prevented the PCA from ruling that Taiping Island is a rock.

So far, the Tsai administration’s response has been a series of confused speeches and a steady toning down of rhetoric. Tsai’s initial response had been very hardline. Upon receiving news of the arbitration results, Tsai had immediately rushed off to Zuoying Naval Base in Kaohsiung, boarded a 3,000 ton La Fayette class frigate, given a speech denouncing the results of the arbitration, and called on the ROCN to “defend Taiwan’s sovereignty.” Meanwhile, Taiwan’s ministries scrambled to proclaim the Republic of China’s sovereignty and the existence of the 11-Dash Line. Over the next few days, however, the government began to backpedal on its statements. Tsai ordered the DPP ministries to stop mentioning the “U-Shaped line” and the phrase “Exclusive Economic Zone” in their statements. Tsai has also stopped making statements since July 12th and is remaining silent on the issue.

Like many of her previous actions, Tsai would most likely try to compromise between the various factions of the DPP, as well as continue to try to win the support of the U.S. Meanwhile, she would try to avoid showing any signs of a strong reaction. The Taiwanese electorate, however, are unlikely to forgive Tsai’s “loss of national territory.” The infighting between the “shallow green” and the “deep green” factions of the DPP is also likely to weaken the Party’s political power and effectiveness, thereby making future policies more difficult to carry out. The combined “shame” of loss of territory and the factional infights might heavily impact the next general election and swing it in favour of the KMT.

Hanyu Huang