Earlier this week, the international court in the Hague finally released its ruling in the the South China Sea case, siding unambiguously against Chinese claims. While some have been eyeing Beijing for signs of escalation, the other China, Taiwan, is making sure it won’t be overlooked. The Nikkei Asian Review reports:
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan’s claim over the Spratly Islands and their surrounding waters has been gravely damaged by a ruling from an international tribunal, and that Taiwan is dispatching a warship to patrol the area to defend its rights. […]
She spoke before naval officers aboard the La Fayette-class Di Hua frigate shortly before they embarked from the southern Taiwanese military port of Zuoying to carry out a patrol mission around the Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island, known as Itu Aba in the Philippines, the largest naturally formed feature of the Spratlys. The ship is slated to arrive in the disputed waters in two or three days.
More vessels in already-crowded waters and the rejection of international law are hardly causes for celebration. However, the supposition that this means Taiwan is siding with the Mainland is off the mark. Consider Tsai’s comments following her announcement of the frigate deployment:
Tsai added that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully through multilateral negotiations.
Following a string of competing naval patrols with Japan earlier this year, Taiwan established a mechanism to negotiate disputes in the East China Sea with Japan, a strategic partner and China counterweight. We wouldn’t be surprised if Tsai is using that as a precedent, and intending these latest patrols to be a sort of bargaining chip. Since her inauguration, Tsai has been promoting a “New Go South” policy aimed at strengthening ties with Southeast Asian nations by addressing their concerns about the South China Sea. Could this deployment be intended to demonstrate that Taiwan has leverage in the South China Sea?
Whatever the purpose behind the patrols, there are further indications that Taiwan does not see itself on the same side as Mainland China. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan made a point of complaining when the Hague called it the “Taiwan Authority of China”:
This inappropriate designation is demeaning to the status of the R.O.C. as a sovereign state,” the ministry said, using an abbreviation for the Republic of China. That aspect of Taiwan’s criticism was not widely acknowledged by China, however. Beijing tries to minimize Taiwan’s international recognition or participation in bodies that would elevate the island’s status and sovereignty.
None of this should be very surprising. Since her inauguration, Tsai’s words and deeds have made clear that Taiwan is forging its own path separate from the People’s Republic. This latest naval deployment doesn’t change that.