American Institute in Taiwan Spokesperson Sonia Urbom has expressed disappointment in Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou’s visit to Taiping Island, a position reiterated by U.S. Department of State Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner on Jan. 28. Fortunately, Toner did not upgrade the level of criticism, and an unnamed senior State Department official also indicated that the United States understands President Ma’s predicament in being forced to make a show of sovereignty, adding that the United States hopes the incident will not develop further and affect U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Several scholars and experts with an eye on cross-strait relations have already raised doubts that the United States’ tough stance toward President Ma has been fair. Former Harvard University Professor Jerome Cohen and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Vice President for Studies Douglas Paal both believe that the language used in the United States’ statement of disappointment was excessive and unfair to President Ma, who has been a proponent for peace in the East and South China Seas, and has sought to defend [Taiwan’s] sovereignty over Taiping Island.
The United States should be able to understand on multiple fronts that President Ma’s decision to travel to Taiping Island was indeed predicated on other factors that forced his hand. In November of last year, during a second oral hearing before an international arbitration tribunal, the Philippines asserted that Taiping Island is not an island at all, but a rock.
Washington knows well that Taiping Island is a naturally-formed island, but indulges Manila’s allegation to the contrary, as well as its complaint that the nine-dash line supported by mainland China violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United States should easily recognize the flaws inherent with such arguments.
Taiping Island, which is under the sovereignty of the Republic of China, is the largest natural island in the Spratlys and the only one that possesses fresh water. If the international arbitration court would only send experts to the island to investigate, they would discover that Taiping Island is not only the largest naturally-formed island in the Spratlys, but that it contains farms which have been operated at length, with planted fruits and vegetables to allow the island’s coast guard personnel to sustain themselves. Taiping Island not only meets the conditions specified under Article 121 of UNCLOS to qualify as a naturally-formed island, but is also consistent with the requirement in the third clause of the same article pertaining to the ability to “sustain human habitation or economic life.”
Seeing as the United States has already extended the olive branch, and President Ma’s show of sovereignty over Taiping Island has now been made, Taiwan should quit while it’s ahead and dial up communication with Washington, lest any third party seek to foment further estrangement in
The author is a professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of the Americas.
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