Tsai will need to have a strategy for handling Taiwan’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and the president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen, held a high-profile meeting on March 30. As expected, Ma proactively exchanged opinions with Tsai on protecting Taiwanese sovereignty on the South China Sea; Tsai, meanwhile, emphasized that her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has never changed its stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty over Taiping Island (Itu Aba). She also urged Ma not to “misjudge” to the DPP’s position, without making any substantial explanation. Tsai’s remarks demonstrate the complexity of the South China Sea issue, which she will be facing after taking office on May 20.
After the inauguration, President Tsai and her national security advisors will face two difficult choices: whether to continue Ma’s policies and actions and whether to modify the statements of Taiwan’s sovereign claims to the South China Sea.
Will Tsai Continue Ma’s South China Sea Policy?
It is fair to say that, during his eight-year presidency, Ma put substantial effort toward sovereignty protection in the South China Sea, but he chose not to publicize these moves in order to avoid irritating the United States. For instance, in April 2011, the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) approved an application for oil and gas exploration and exploitation from the China Petroleum Corporation Taiwan (CPC) in Itu Aba and its surrounding areas within 100 nautical miles. The total area is up to 137,381 square meters in size. The approval was further extended to April 2017 right before its expiration in April 2015. The CPC also sent its exploration team to Itu Aba under the escort of the ROC Navy frigates in October 2012. Soon afterward, in 2014 and 2015, the government conducted a “non-living resources investigation in the sea area of the South China Sea” and a “feasibility assessment of hydrology investigation and exploration” under the guidance of the MOEA.
Notably, the approval for CPC’s exploration and exploitation of oil and gas and the “right of resource exploration” is highly significant as a declaration of sovereignty and thus such development can easily attract attention from the other claimant countries. How the DPP government will deal with the “right of exploration,” which is going to expire in April 2017? Will Tsai’s government proactively or passively amend relevant acts and laws to enable the state-owned CPC to apply for an extension from the MOEA? Will the exploration area be constrained? Will the exploration work be continued? All these will be indicators demonstrating Tsai’s attitude toward Taiwan’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.