Taiwan must weigh strategic needs as it feuds with Japan and the Philippines over territorial disputes

Emanuele Scimia says its quarrels with Manila and Tokyo in contested seas may prove a distraction as cross-strait relations come under the spotlight

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 4:39pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 4:40pm

Cross-strait affairs will inevitably top the political agenda of new Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai faces that challenge amid a deteriorating diplomatic and security landscape, as the island falls foul of the Philippines and Japan, neighbours that share its concerns over China’s military build-up in East Asia. Along with Beijing and a number of neighbours, Taipei claims all or part of the land formations and surrounding waters in the South and East China seas.

Taiwan has a dispute with the Philippines over the status of Taiping, the largest of the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. Also known as Itu Aba, it is administered by Taipei.

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In its case before the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which is set to hand down a ruling on China’s territorial demands over vast portions of the South China Sea, Manila contends that Taiping, like other naturally formed land masses in these waters, is a rock and not an island – and thus is not entitled to an 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. In March, in an attempt to prop up its position, Taiwan invited Philippine officials to visit Taiping, but they declined.

Maritime sovereignty in the Western Pacific is also at the heart of a fresh quarrel between Taipei and Tokyo. In late April, with Japan’s detention of a Taiwanese fishing boat sailing close to the Okinotori reef, Taipei had first-hand experience of the Japanese assertive posturing in the region. The episode has rocked otherwise friendly relations between the two nations, which in 2013 concluded an agreement to settle their long-standing fishing disputes around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

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Okinotori is located in the Philippine Sea, some 860 nautical miles from Taiwan, in an area that Taipei considers part of the high seas rather than Japan’s exclusive economic zone. In response to Tokyo’s move, Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, ordered the country’s coast guard to dispatch armed patrol boats to the area to protect Taiwanese fishing rights.

China rejects Japan’s claim that Okinotori is entitled to an exclusive economic zone, as well.

If tensions with Japan and the Philippines were to exacerbate, Taiwan’s already narrow room for manoeuvre would be further reduced. Such a prospect would undermine Ma’s efforts to seek peaceful resolutions to disputes in the East China Sea and endanger Tsai’s “new southbound policy”, her plan to expand the country’s influence in Southeast Asia. In the broader picture, all the bickering with Tokyo and Manila could weaken the political and military front that the US is trying to build to confront China’s ambitions.

Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and foreign affairs analyst