China finds common ground with Taiwan in dismissal of South China Sea ruling

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (centre) on an inspection while aboard the Taiwanese Navy warship Kang Ding before it sets sail to Taiping Island in the South China Sea.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (centre) on an inspection while aboard the Taiwanese Navy warship Kang Ding before it sets sail to Taiping Island in the South China Sea.PHOTO: EPA/OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT OF TAIWAN

BEIJING (Bloomberg) - China and Taiwan are finding common ground after an international court dismissed their shared claims to the South China Sea.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen sent a naval frigate to patrol the disputed waterway on Wednesday (July 13) to show the government's "determination" to defend its national interest.

The order came hours after an arbitral tribunal under the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) found China's - and therefore Taiwan's - claims to much of the area have no legal basis. 

Specifically, the court found the largest natural feature in the contested Spratly Islands, the Taiwanese-held Itu Aba, was a "rock" rather than an island and did not qualify for a 200- nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

The frigate's planned patrol included a resupply stop at the feature, which Taiwan calls Taiping, a defence ministry spokesman said.

The decision to deploy the warship could further escalate tensions in the area after the arbitration tribunal ruling. China has said it doesn't recognise the court's jurisdiction and warned on Wednesday it may yet seek to set up an air defence identification zone over disputed waters.

The ruling, resulting from a challenge brought by the Philippines, invalidated China's "nine-dash line" claim. China's assertions cross over with those from countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and are based on a map created in 1947. Taiwan has administered Itu Aba since the 1950s.

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin on Wednesday praised Taiwan's efforts to defend rights shared by the one-time civil war foes.

"The arbitration has damaged the rights of all Chinese, and it's the common interest and responsibility of both sides to protect the maritime rights of the South China Sea," Mr Liu said at a briefing in Beijing. He accused the tribunal judges in the case of bias and a lack of common sense.

While China refused to participate in the tribunal proceedings, it did submit a paper outlining its position and worked behind the scenes to lobby the court, according to the decision.

Taiwan, under former President Ma Ying-jeou, filed a brief to the panel stating a case for an exclusive economic zone around Itu Aba, citing its ability to support life.

AT ODDS

In a statement echoing China's own response on Tuesday, Ms Tsai said the Hague ruling had no binding effect on Taiwan and undermined her government's rights. The former law professor, who ousted Mr Ma's Kuomintang party in a landslide election in January, called for multilateral talks to promote stability in the region.

The remarks put Taiwan's new leader at odds with the United States, which has called on China to abide by the ruling. They also provide a rare area of agreement between Ms Tsai and Communist Party leaders, who have cut off communications over her refusal to affirm the contention the two sides represent "one China".

Ms Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party officially supports independence for Taiwan. New York University law professor Jerome Cohen, a specialist in Chinese law who counts Mr Ma among his former students, said Ms Tsai was struggling to "adjust to an uncomfortable situation".

'BIG MISTAKE'

"Today's response openly rejecting the decision is a big mistake and different from what even Ma would have done," Prof Cohen wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

"Tsai will be criticised at home for following Beijing's lawless line at the same time that Beijing was responsible for excluding Taiwan from participation in the arbitration."

Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration also stations vessels at Itu Aba, and another Wei-Shin frigate arrived at the feature late Tuesday, the agency said.

Ms Tsai's position "is really hard" because the claims of Taiwan and China are practically identical, said Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

"How you chart a course that maintains a Taiwanese position without sounding like you are China is very tricky. "

The decision by the tribunal that none of the features in the Spratlys are islands - meaning they generate at most a 12-nautical-mile territorial zone - could open a path for negotiations between China, the US and other claimants.

"Suddenly, you are back to large areas of the South China Sea that are high seas, open to freedom of navigation and travel," said Mr Eric Shrimp, a former US diplomat who's now a Washington-based policy adviser at law firm Alston & Bird.

"The question then becomes: how do the interested parties cooperate to secure those high seas?"