The South China Sea is not at the top of Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s agenda, but for the sake of domestic stability, U.S.-Taiwan relations, and cross-strait relations, her newly-installed Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government must exercise caution in its handling of the Philippines’ arbitration against China. How Tsai handles the ruling will prove critical for Taipei, as a wrong step could be misconstrued as an indication of the government’s intent to pursue Taiwan’s independence, which has the potential to create a crisis in cross-strait relations and complicate relations with Washington.
During the Ma Ying-jeou administration, the South China Sea was viewed as an opportunity to promote Taiwan’s voice and role as a peacemaker. This was most clearly seen in Ma’s South China Sea Peace Initiative, which he launched in May 2015. However, in the final year of Ma’s presidency, he garnered more criticism than praise from the United States because of visits by officials–including Ma himself–to Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba (Taiping Island) to uphold Taiwan’s sovereignty and the Ma administration’s rejection of the pending ruling from the tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the The Hague.