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China finds ally in Taiwan's leader in ruling refusal

Thursday, July 14, 2016 - 09:17

[TAIPEI] China and Taiwan are finding common ground after an international court dismissed their shared claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea.

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

The order came hours after the Permanent Court of Arbitration 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 didn't qualify for a 200-nautical mile (370 kilometre) exclusive economic zone. The frigate's planned patrol included a resupply stop at the feature, which Taiwan calls Taiping, a defense 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 Wednesday it may yet seek to set up an air defense 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 by Taiwan's Republic of China government 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.

In a statement echoing China's own response 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 Nationalist 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 its chief security protector, the US, 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."

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

Defense stocks were mixed in Wednesday trading on Chinese exchanges. Avic Aircraft Co and Avic Helicopter Co fell 0.8 per cent while Jiangxi Hongdu Aviation Industry Co slipped 1 per cent. AviChina Industry & Technology Co rose 1.4 per cent and Avic Jonhon Optronic Technology Co gained 3.1 per cent.

Tsai Ing-wen'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 Eric Shimp, 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?"

BLOOMBERG