As Beijing Patrols South China Sea, Taiwan Vows To Protect Territory

No country should create tensions or "make threats" in the South China Sea, Taiwan's president has said, in a statement that included seldom-heard territorial claims in the contested waters.

Her comments come as China begins a full month of military exercises in the region, with its government repeatedly expressing disapproval of navigation exercises conducted by the U.S. and its allies.

Tsai Ing-wen's remarks were delivered by her party's spokesperson, Yen Juo-fang, on Wednesday after she heard a specially commissioned report about the security situation in the South China Sea, where Taiwan administers two islands and makes historical claims over many others.

The Central Standing Committee of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which Tsai chairs, received a report on the hot-button issue by Lin Ting-hui, deputy secretary-general of the Taiwanese Society of International Law, said Yen.

Taiwan currently controls the Pratas Island and Itu Aba, which it calls Dongsha and Taiping, respectively. The latter is the largest among the Spratly Islands, whose claimants include China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Taiwan's coast guard regularly patrols the islands, which are respectively 280 miles and 1,000 miles southwest of the port city of Kaohsiung, which administers them.

"Taiwan has not changed its position on territorial rights in the South China Sea and will continue to defend our territorial sovereignty," read Tsai's statement, which also endorsed freedoms of navigation and flight under international law.

"No country should unilaterally create tension and antagonism or make threats in the region," she said, issuing what appeared to be a pointed message to Beijing over its regular protests of foreign military activity in the South China Sea.

Despite Taiwan's historically vast maritime claims in the region—most of which were made under its formal name the Republic of China (ROC) and later inherited by the People's Republic of China (PRC)—Taipei insists it wants to be a "responsible" constituent of the Indo-Pacific, and one that plays an active part in maintaining its stability.

Since Tsai's first election to office in 2016, "Taiwan has been recognized by the international community for its stake in maintaining peace and stability in the region," the president said.

Taiwan would continue to cooperate with like-minded countries while actively contributing to regional peace and stability, she added.

The Tsai administration's last high-profile pronouncements on territory in the region came after a 2016 arbitration ruling on the status of maritime claims and features as part of The Republic of Philippines v. The People's Republic of China case heard in The Hague.

China, which began escalating its dredging and artificial island-building activities two years prior, rejected all findings by the Permanent Court of Arbitration as "null."

Tsai had been in office for a matter of weeks at the time of the PCA verdict. Her government also rejected the ruling, but on the grounds that Taiwan had not been invited to participate in the hearings. She also received criticism for deploying a navy warship to Itu Aba in response to the PCA's classification of it and other high-tide features in the Spratlys as "rocks."

In recent weeks, however, China's enacting of its new Coast Guard Law in February has caused the most alarm among regional neighbors, including the Philippines and Japan.

Manila raised concerns about provisions in the legislation, which allow Chinese maritime authorities to fire upon foreign vessels deemed to be intruding in China's territorial waters. Similar fears were expressed by Tokyo, which controls the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea—also claimed by Beijing and Taipei.

China has dismissed claims it plans to fire on foreign ships, but its officials have protested frequent freedom of navigation exercises by the U.S. and others.

On Monday, a spokesperson for Beijing's Ministry of National Defense said China does not oppose freedom of the seas, but it is against using freedom of navigation as a pretext to increase military presence in the South China Sea.

The Biden administration has reassured the governments of the Philippines and Japan of U.S. defense commitments to both countries, including in the South China Sea and the Senkakus.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen Sits for Interview
File photo: Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images