Taiwan’s Tsai giving up claims in China Sea?

The soap opera known as the South China Sea dispute apparently has more to run. The proverbial fat lady that sings the finale is nowhere in sight.

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has taken the lead role in the latest episode. While her initial objections to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling were regarded as consistent with general expectations, her subsequent action surprised many.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen visits a La Fayette-class fridate at a naval base in the southern county of Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (C) visits a La Fayette-class frigate at a naval base in the southern county of Kaohsiung, Taiwan July 13, 2016. Military News Agency/ via REUTERS

She objected to her government not being invited to the proceedings. She resented being called the “Taiwan Authority of China,”—she doesn’t even like to be known as leader of Republic of China on Taiwan. Lastly, she objected to the judges blithely ignoring Taiping’s natural features of a real island. So far, so good.

Then a strange thing happened. Almost immediately after the PCA ruling was made public, Taiwan’s coast guard boats set forth to patrol the waters around the Taiping Island as an expression of defiance. But Tsai’s military head commanded the boats already at sea to return to Taiwan.

The reason for a vigorous protest was that if the PCA ruling was allowed to stand, Taiwan was at risk of losing the internationally accepted 200-mile economic exclusion zone that goes with an island but not with any reefs, rocks or sandbars.

Taiwan fishermen defied Tsai

Five boats of Taiwanese fishermen, festooned with the blue, white and red national ROC flags, also set forth on the six-day, one-way voyage from Taiwan to reaffirm Taiwan’s ownership of the island. The Tsai government forbade the sailing claiming that they needed to apply for a permit 45 days in advance.

Half of the original ten fishing boats were intimidated by the government threat of punishment and did not sail. The other five decided to ignore the unreasonable regulation retroactively imposed. Upon arrival, one of the boats was not allowed to dock at the pier on Taiping.

Tsai’s reasoning for keeping the people on the fifth boat from going onshore was that the boat had working journalists for “foreign” entity on board. The so-called foreign journalists were well known Taiwan citizens based in Taiwan and employed by Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV.

All of a sudden, Taiping Island in the middle of South China Sea has become a militarily sensitive area in need of security measures against Taiwan’s own citizens. Pundits in Taiwan accused Tsai of not wanting any exhibition of nationalism that would offend the U.S. and Japan.

The fishing boats returned in triumph with samples of potable water taken from the wells on the island and sand from the island as trophies of their high seas journey. The fishermen received a hero’s welcome from the people but faced an uncertain future as they wait to hear the fine the Tsai administration will levy on them for their so-called breach of security.

Derision from the media has been growing daily. They accuse Tsai of giving up claims of sovereignty and the livelihood of current and future generations of fishermen in order to please her masters in Tokyo and Washington—hugging Uncle Sam’s thigh was their colorful expression.

Tsai’s approval rating plummeted

At the outset, 70% of the people in Taiwan were in favor of Tsai leading a contingent to the Taiping Island to plant the ROC flag for the world to see. She evaded the public clamor and did not make the flight. Instead, eight legislators from KMT side of the aisle did.

According to one of the latest polls, in just two months in office, Tsai’s approval rating has already plummeted to a record low of 8.4%. It took her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, four years to drop to a single digit.

Others credit Tsai with more devious scheme than just being weak and indecisive. Even though the airstrip on Taiping was constructed under Taiwan’s first DPP administration, by Chen Shui-bian, Tsai’s inner circle has been revisiting the question as to whether the U-shaped, dash-line claims of South China Sea continue to be relevant to DPP interest.

They concluded that by giving up on Taiping and claims of the U-shape boundary on South China Sea, DPP could make a clean break from the historical ties to ROC and common cause with Mainland China.  It would facilitate Tsai breaking away from the need to acknowledging the one-China consensus and finally laying a claim for an independent, albeit slightly smaller, Taiwan.

By allowing the only naturally occurring island to be redefined as a rock, no one can lay claim to a 200-mile economic exclusion zone in the South China Sea. Thus, in helping the U.S. and Japan accomplish their objective, which is to declare South China Sea as belonging to no one, Tsai is counting on the two “friends” in the event of armed conflict with Beijing.

Whether the people of Taiwan will go along with her strategy remains to be seen and whether Beijing will continue to allow Taiwan to enjoy a subsidy in the form of near $30 billion trade surplus also remains to be seen. Given her remarks in the exclusive interview with the Washington Post, which aroused the ire of the people both in Taiwan and across the strait, the future seemed dark.

Philippines having second thoughts

On the other hand, the Philippines is one country having second thoughts of being a proxy for the U.S. in the South China Sea dispute.

The U.S. has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and has no claims in the South China Sea, not even a submerged coral reef. America needed a stand-in to litigate against China’s claims. That was Philippines.

Rigoberto Tiglao, formerly in charge of Philippines’ presidential office, now writes for Manila Times. He said the suit for arbitration was filed at the behest of the United States. He suggested that Washington needed to reimburse Manila for the $30 million spent on the arbitration suit.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration charged about $3 million for secretarial services that included the use of the hearing room at a rate of Euro 1,000/day. Besides the generous compensation for the American lawyer acting for Philippines, how much of the rest went into the pockets of the judges, he wondered.

That the American intervention has been way over the top is also the judgement of Alberto Encomienda, former official of Philippines Foreign Affairs department.

Antonio Valdes, former undersecretary of education, said a one-sided arbitration without the agreement and participation of the other party to the arbitration was meaningless. The ruling was merely a legal opinion without the force of law.

The PCA has been around for more than 100 years. On the average, it provided arbitration services for about three cases every 20 years. Most of the times, major powers ignored rulings that they didn’t like. The body rents space at the building in The Hague belonging to the International Court but PCA has no connection with the international court or with the UN.

Kerry saw the wisdom of bilateral talks

Even Secretary John Kerry saw the futility of pursuing the PCA sham ruling when the closing statement of the ASEAN conference in Laos omitted any mention of  the arbitration ruling that the Philippines just won. The closing statement was supposed to represent the consensus of the ASEAN members. He now liked the idea of bilateral talks between Philippines and China.

Does that mean he will honor the $30 million invoice from Manila? Who knows. At least the Philippines government by looking forward is betting that collaboration with China will lead to infrastructure investments worth many times the fee paid to PCA.

At this point, Tsai might be feeling a bit lonely. When the Post asked her about the decline of tourists from mainland, a non-trivial part of Taiwan’s local economy, Tsai rather lamely hoped that Taiwan could attract tourists from elsewhere.

As for the trade surplus with the mainland, Tsai said to the Post that the surplus is declining and in any case the mainland is becoming more of a competitor. She bravely claimed that Taiwan could develop its economy via other avenues independent of the relations Taiwan has with the mainland.

Tsai is no fat lady and she is not ready to sing the finale in triumph or tragedy. The drama rolls on.

Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.

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