Of all the countries on Earth, only Taiwan agrees with and supports all of China’s legal claims in the South China Sea. And Taiwan isn’t even considered to be a country by China, the U.S., and most other nations. But China’s government appears to view the South China Sea as an opportunity for cooperation between the two estranged governments. The current Taiwan government tacitly supports China’s expansive claims in the region by adhering to identical claims. Because Taiwan makes these claims as a rival government rather than as a separate country, Taiwan’s statements and actions buttress and support China’s identical claims. For instance, Taiwan’s military occupies Taiping Island—the largest land feature in the much-contested Spratly Islands—and China uses Taiwan’s military presence as a basis for many of its territorial and maritime claims. Taiwan’s government also originated the controversial “9 Dash Line” claim now espoused by China, and it is Taiwanese scholars who have provided much of intellectual ammunition in support.
One might expect the U.S. to welcome polls showing that the candidate of Taiwan’s traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai Ing-wen, is anticipated to win next month’s presidential elections a landslide. As part of efforts to repel China’s South China Sea claims, the U.S. has reportedly encouraged Taiwan to limit or abandon its claims in the region. And on that point, Tsai is a more likely US ally than the current Nationalist Party administration. But the U.S. should proceed with caution in pushing a new Taiwan government to oppose China in the South China Sea. Support for a new Taiwan South China Sea policy will inevitably become intertwined with support for formal Taiwanese independence, a position the U.S. does not currently support.
As many may recall, Taiwan’s government is the Republic of China government that fled the mainland following their defeat in the 1949 Chinese civil war. While it ruled the mainland, the ROC government had aggressively sought to assert territorial claims to territory that it believed had been stolen from China by foreign powers, such as Mongolia, Tibet, and parts of modern-day India. Most notoriously, the ROC government released a map in 1947 containing the now-infamous 9 Dash Line that appeared to stake some claim to most of the land and water in the South China Sea. [The 9 dashes refers to China’s version, the ROC version of the line had, and still has, 11 dashes.] The ROC also dispatched troops—with U.S. assistance—to occupy the largest land feature in the Spratly Islands, Taiping Island which is also known as Itu Aba. It still occupies and garrisons that island today.
The current mainland Chinese government has adopted the “9 Dash Line” as its own, and recently sought to expand its presence in the region through aggressive land reclamation. But the intellectual foundation for China’s wildly expansive claims in the South China Sea was established by the ROC government in the 1940s, and it remains a central part of the current Taiwan government’s nationalist ideology. The current Taiwanese government has slowly scaled back the ROC’s legal claims, but—as documented by Brookings scholar Lynn Kuok—it has only done so in small and subtle ways.
This history lesson brings us back to Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP. Because the DPP has long sought formal independence from China, the DPP does not share the South China Sea nationalism that is still strong in Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party. First, an independent Taiwan that is separate from China would have very little claim to any land features—much less the maritime rights—in the South China Sea. Very few of the historical claims at the heart of China’s moral and legal case for control of the South China Sea could be espoused by an independent Taiwan. Why, then, should “Taiwan” do the hard work of seeking territory on behalf of “China?” Moreover, the DPP government has pledged to cool relations with China if elected. To join China in a tacit partnership to expand China’s influence in the South China Sea would seem an awkward fit with this election mandate. It is unsurprising that the Nationalist Party in Taiwan has attacked the DPP for going “soft” on ROC sovereignty over the South China Sea.
The DPP has sharply refuted these charges, but also remains coy on exactly what its South China Sea approach would be other than to bring those claims into line with UNCLOS. It is possible that a DPP government will refrain from actions supporting the most controversial parts of China’s claims in the South China Sea. For instance, it might stop further construction on Taiping Island, which is designed to demonstrate that land feature is an island qualifying as an exclusive economic zone under UNCLOS. If Taiping is not an island for purposes of UNCLOS, this would sharply undermine many of China’s claims to nearby reefs and rocks that are parasitic on Taiping Island.
A DPP government might also officially disavow the “9 Dash Line” as a basis for claiming legal rights in the region. Ultimately, the line creates more headaches than benefits for Taiwan. And though Taiwanese scholars offer academic support for the 9 Dash Line, a DPP government could endorse the views of dissenting scholars who have long urged Taiwan to abandon the claim. The U.S. and other South China Sea claimants would surely welcome such a move as more in compliance with international law.
China will be watching closely to see if DPP-led acts in the South China Sea signal separatism. If the DPP scale back or abandon Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea that could be taken as a sign that the DPP is turning away from “the Republic of China” and towards the “Republic of Taiwan.” This is not what China wants, and it is not what the U.S. wants either. Indeed, the United States has stated in the past that it does not support an independent Taiwan—although it somewhat contradictorily also insists on its right to sell arms to Taiwan to defend itself. Put another way, the U.S. wants Taiwan to oppose China in the South China Sea, but not to oppose China generally.
The South China Sea presents an opportunity for a new Taiwan government to separate a little more from China and warm relations with other claimants in the region, as well as win some U.S. goodwill. But simultaneously, it could become a flashpoint for conflict with China. If elected, Tsai must strike a delicate balance if she is to satisfy domestic constituents, mainland Chinese pressures, and often contradictory U.S. expectations. And the U.S. should think hard about whether to push for a new Taiwan approach to the South China Sea. It might be prudent to leave Taiwan alone and avoid mixing the South China Sea dispute with the potentially far more dangerous question of an independent Taiwan.