Rul­ing a chance for Tsai to break im­passe

China Daily (USA) - - VIEWS -

The ar­bi­tral tri­bunal’s rul­ing that Taip­ing Is­land, 0.51 square kilo­me­ter in area and the largest is­land in the South China Sea, is a “rock” rather than an “is­land” sparked public out­cries in Tai­wan. Sixty-two per­cent of the peo­ple wished Tai­wan leader Tsai Ing­wen could visit the is­land to demon­strate Tai­wan’s de­fi­ance to the rul­ing.

The South China Sea is­sue was not Tsai’s pri­or­ity. So far she has es­chewed China’s his­toric rights in the South China Sea and the im­pli­ca­tions of the dot­ted line so as to dis­tance her­self from the po­si­tion of the Chi­nese main­land. But over­whelm­ing public re­sent­ment against the rul­ing gave her no choice but to de­nounce it as “to­tally un­ac­cept­able”.

Tsai’s first pri­or­ity, re­al­is­ti­cally, is the econ­omy, which de­pends heav­ily on the main­land. The poor per­for­mance by her pre­de­ces­sor Ma Ying-jeou on the economic front tells why Tai­wan res­i­dents se­lected her— for a change. Her sec­ond pri­or­ity is to break the cross-Straits im­passe. The main­land in­sists that ex­changes are pos­si­ble only if she ac­cepts the 1992 Con­sen­sus on one China. So far her at­ti­tude has been one of stud­ied am­bi­gu­ity.

Here is the chance. The protest in Tai­wan over the rul­ing, in fact, res­onates with that of the main­land. She could use this to re­spond pos­i­tively to public opin­ions across the Straits. The only price to pay is the pressure from the United States and Ja­pan, nei­ther of which wants her to stress China’s his­toric rights in the South China Sea, let alone join hands with the main­land on the sovereignty is­sue. But Tsai could still ma­neu­ver her move by cit­ing the ob­vi­ous loop­hole in the rul­ing and the over­whelm­ing public opin­ion. This is a price she can af­ford.

She could, in the first place, heed the public opin­ion to visit Taip­ing Is­land. Her pre­de­ces­sors Chi­ang Ching-Kuo, Chen Shui-bian, Ma Ying-jeou did so while in of­fice. The one who didn’t is Lee Teng-hui. She could show that she is no less de­ter­mined on China’s sovereignty. And she could make a dif­fer­ence. If she vis­its two months af­ter tak­ing of­fice, it will be im­pres­sive. Ma vis­ited the is­land only to­ward the end of his ten­ure. Ap­par­ently he didn’t need to bother aboutUS dis­ap­proval any more.

Tsai could make po­si­tion of Tai­wan on the South China Sea clearer. A day af­ter the rul­ing, she stood on DiHua frigate and said: “Now is the time for us to demon­strate our re­solve to safe­guard the coun­try’s in­ter­ests.” But her re­marks that the frigate’s up­com­ing pa­trol “car­ries spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance as newchanges just oc­curred yes­ter­day (July 12) in the South China Sea” sound more like a con­cealed anal­ogy.

In con­trast, Ma made it crys­tal clear on Taip­ing Is­land that the sovereignty ofNan­sha, Xisha, Zhong­sha, Dong­sha is­lands and their sur­round­ing wa­ters is be­yond doubt Chi­nese. Ma also elab­o­rated how is­lands in the South China Sea had been in­cluded in the coastal de­fense sys­tem since 1721 dur­ing theQingDy­nasty (1644-1911) and how, legally speak­ing, the is­land was not a rock at all.

Also, Tsai could strengthen the de­fense of Taip­ing Is­land, or­ga­nize more frigate pa­trols and even drills in the South China Sea. She could even take the bold­est step— al­low schol­ars from the main­land to use the ar­chives on the South China Sea in Tai­wan. Most of the ar­chives were shipped to Tai­wan when Kuom­intang with­drewfrom the main­land. His­to­ri­ans and le­gal ex­perts across the Straits could hold work­shops or sem­i­nars making use of the doc­u­ments. She could also al­low low sen­si­tiv­ity co­op­er­a­tion on, say, fish­ing and sal­vage op­er­a­tions with the main­land in the South China Sea. None of these steps have been taken by her pre­de­ces­sors. So she could make his­tory. The au­thor is an hon­orary fel­low at the Cen­ter of China-Amer­i­can De­fense Re­la­tions, Academy of Mil­i­tary Sci­ence.

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