Taiwan Sends Fishing Fleet and Lawmakers to Claim Rights to Taiping Island after International Tribunal Deems it a ‘Rock’

The long-awaited results of an international tribunal hearing over the much-contested South China Sea came in last week – and since then, the ruling has placed the hot-button issue of territorial claims in the spotlight.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled July 12 in favor of the Philippines, saying that evidence as to China’s ‘historical claims’ to the region are unfounded, and that Beijing’s actions violated the Philippine’s sovereign rights.

China’s huge loss goes hand-in-hand with another country – Taiwan. In its ruling against China, the court also rejected Taiwan’s right to a 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around Taiping Island, located smack in the middle of the South China Sea.

Taiping, the largest of the highly debated Spratly Islands, is administered by Taiwan. The 46- hectare island was deemed by the court a mere “rock” – and Taiwan just couldn’t accept that.

The country’s president Tsai Ing-wen boarded a Taiwanese warship last Wednesday, addressing the crew: “…The South China arbitration ruling, especially in the part about Taiping Island, has seriously hurt our rights to the South China Sea islands and their relevant waters.”

Just a week after President Tsai’s warship appearance, about 30 Taiwanese fishermen and lawmakers also made their way to Taiping Island to support their claims and fishing rights in the area.

At the forefront of this operation stands fisherman Cheng Chun-chung. “It’s a serious issue to reduce Taiping Island to a ‘reef’,” Central News Agency quoted Mr. Cheng as saying.

Mr. Cheng led approximately 20 fishermen from Pingtung county, located just east of Taiwan’s southern capital, Kaohsiung. The armada set off for Taipei at about noon Wednesday, all five boats decked out in Taiwanese flags and banners reading: “Safeguard fishing rights in the South China Sea,” and ­“Protect ancestral assets”.

South China Morning Post reported that the fishermen said they would spend the two-week trip fishing as a statement of protest and stressing Taiwan’s sovereign right over the waters.

Although ten boats had signed up for the protest-trip, five pulled out after warnings from fishing authorities came pouring in, organizers said.

Even Mr. Cheng himself was threatened by the authorities. He told the South China Morning Post that he was approached by a fisheries official, who told Mr. Cheng his boat license would be revoked if he went to the island because “his vessel was restricted to sailing between Taiwan, the mainland, and Hong Kong.” But Mr. Cheng was not deterred by the threat; he was adamant that he will not back down.

A few hours earlier, some of Taiwan’s lawmakers jetted off for the island at issue. Eight legislators from Taiwan’s two political parties – the presently in-power Democratic Progressive Party and the formerly in-charge Kuomintang (KMT) – boarded a military aircraft for a flight to Taiping, landing at about 10:50am, CNA reported.

Once on Taiping Island, the Taiwanese politicians visited a weather station and checked out solar power and satellite equipment. They also sampled coconut juice from trees planted on the island, KMT legislator Johnny Chiang Chi-chen told SCMP.  

Wang Ding-yu, another lawmaker on the trip, said the solar power facilities and a well had been established on the island.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea says that an island must be able to sustain human habitation or economic life. Both of the places the legislators visited prove that these UN requirements are being fulfilled , and thus serve to refute the international tribunal’s ruling on the status of Taiping.

Mr. Chiang, who led the lawmakers’ expedition, also criticized the Taiwanese government for “not taking substantial action to defend the island’s sovereignty in the region,” according to SCMP.

Taiwan did not take part in the hearings at the Hague.