Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Taiwanese Election Serves as Rebuke to PRC

Lawfare Staff
Friday, January 22, 2016, 10:12 AM

Taiwanese President-Elect Tsai Ing-wen during final campaign rally in Taipei (Photo: Reuters)

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Taiwanese President-Elect Tsai Ing-wen during final campaign rally in Taipei (Photo: Reuters)

Democrat Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen was elected as Taiwan’s first female president on Saturday, in a landslide victory that has left both sides of the Strait—and the world—on edge. Ms. Tsai will be only the second president to not belong to Kuomintang (KMT), the pro-China party that ruled Taiwan as an authoritarian state until the democratic reforms of the late 1980s. In the final tally, the DPP won 56% of the presidential vote (compared to 31% for KMT candidate Eric Chu) and 68 of 113 seats in the national legislature.

During her victory speech, Ms. Tsai reaffirmed Taiwanese claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea but pledged to lower tensions in the South China Sea, where Taiwan also asserts territorial sovereignty. In another conciliatory gesture to the Mainland, she also promised to “work toward maintaining the status quo for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

However, the PRC apparently remained irked over Ms. Tsai’s previous refusal to endorse the “One-China principle.” In its initial statement after the election, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office warned against “hallucination” of independence: “Our will is as strong as a rock, our attitude unswerving on the principal matter of safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” It added that good relations were possible only if Ms. Tsai would accept the notion of one China. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei echoed this sentiment, asserting that “[b]oth the mainland and Taiwan belong to one and the same China” and that “[t]he result of the election in Taiwan will not change the basic fact and the consensus of the international community.” State media also chimed in, with Xinhua deeming any moves toward independence as a “poison” that would lead to Taiwan’s demise.

For its part, the United States reaffirmed its “profound interest in the continuation of cross-Strait peace and stability”—a message directed at leaders on both sides of the Strait.

For additional analysis, CSIS’s Bonnie Glaser discussed the elections in greater detail and opined on the implications for the United States, while Richard Bush III provided an explanation of the results over at Brookings.

In other news…


On Wednesday, the Vietnamese Communist Party convened its national congress, which will select the nation’s top leadership for the next five years. This includes the post of party general secretarythe de facto head of Vietnam’s government. As Bloomberg explains, there is typically little controversy heading into the congress, but this year, the popular Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung is challenging current Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. Hanging in the balance is Vietnam’s strategic outlook, as Mr. Dung favors stronger relations with the United States, while Mr. Trong has generally remained loyal to Beijing. The outcome of this potential strategic realignment will become clear when the congress concludes on January 28. In the meantime, The Diplomat’s Alexander Vuving provides a fascinating backgrounder on the Vietnamese electoral process.

Given what’s at stake, it is perhaps surprising that China chose this week to reopen an old wound by moving an oil rig into contested waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh claims that, on Saturday, the rig moved to a location where the continental shelves of the two communist nations overlap. He then warned China “to not conduct drilling actions and withdraw Hai Duong 981 from this area.” In response, the PRC insisted that the state-owned rig (which it calls “Haiyang Shiyou 981”) remains in international waters.


Sino-Japanese relations have also deteriorated over recent weeks, at least in part due to what FT describes as ‘stepped-up Chinese incursions’ around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Further stoking the flames, Chinese officials over the weekend dismissed Japan’s recent warnings to stay out of Japanese territorial waters. After reiterating the PRC’s claim on the islands, PRC Defense Ministry spokesman argued that “China’s navigation and patrol activities in the relevant waters near the Diaoyu Islands are completely legitimate,” and he “call[ed] on the Japanese side not to confuse the right and wrong on the issue of the Diaoyu Islands.”

As a sign of growing tensions, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe expressed his “strong concerns over China’s unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the South China Sea, and also the unilateral development of resources in the East China Sea” during a joint Nikkei-FT interview. PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei responded directly to Mr. Abe's comments, noting that “China is on high alert against Japan’s attempt to poke its nose in the issue of the South China Sea” and defending Chinese drilling in the East China Sea.

In an apparent effort to calm the storm, China’s ambassador to Japan suggested that the two nations had “an inseparable relationship” and should “regard each other as partners, not a threat, and [also] as an opportunity, not as a challenge.” However, even the diplomat found it necessary to warn Japan that adopting a policy of containment against China’s rise would be a mistake.


Building on recent series of controversial moves, the PRC once again made waves with its artificial-island program in the South China Sea. This time, the news comes from Sansha City—a small town on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel chain. Feng Wenhai, Sansha’s deputy mayor, announced that his city will start offering regular civil flight services this year. Additionally, China “will complete construction of seabed optical cable and put it into use and provide access to WIFI to all inhabited islands and reefs” in the area. In a similarly provocative move, Sina News reports that the PRC has allowed the first group of “tourists” to visit Fiery Cross Reef, although photos published from the trip appear to show only two wives of “frontier soldiers” and their young children.

During a high-level teleconference, PLA naval commander Wu Shengli suggested to U.S. CNO Admiral John Richardson that the extent of the PRC’s South China Sea militarization will depend directly on its perceived level of threat in the region.


Philippine officials claim to have received two “intimidating” radio from the PLA navy during a civilian flight on January 7 to the PH-controlled Thitu Island, which is close to Subi Reef. Beijing, in turn, accused Manila of exaggerating tensions and fear mongering. As PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei put it, “The Philippines’ comments are just frightening words to scare people, deliberately exaggerating regional tensions with treacherous intent, and its plots will not succeed.”

Filipino protestors are planning a second trip to a disputed island in the South China Sea, apparently in retaliation for China’s tourist visit to Fiery Cross Reef.


Malcolm Turnbull made his first visit to the United States since becoming Prime Minister in an intra-party reshuffle last year, and much of his trip focused on the South China Sea. In Washington, on Monday, Mr. Turnbull warned Beijing against pursuing territorial claims in the Asian Pacific that could lead to a major conflict: “If avoiding the Thucydides Trap is a core objective of China’s strategy, as President Xi insists it is, then we would hope that China’s actions will be carefully calculated to make conflict less likely not more,” Mr. Turnbull said, adding that the PRC’s claims over maritime features in the South China Sea should remain a “secondary consideration” for Beijing. After Mr. Turnbull met with President Obama on Tuesday, the White House released a fact sheet that emphasized the two nations’ shared interest in freedom of navigation and their agreement that “claimants in the South China Sea should exercise restraint and halt land reclamation, construction and further militarization of outposts . . . .” And before concluding the official visit, Mr. Turnbull stopped by U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters in Hawaii to discuss South China Sea tensions with Admiral Harry Harris.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

This week, CSIS released a 290-page study (and a more manageable abridged version) assessing the progress of the U.S. strategic “rebalance” to Asia that President Obama announced in 2011. The congressionally mandated report was ordered up in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act as an update to a 2012 CSIS study on the same subject. Among other things, the report concludes that the pivot has not been clearly explained or sufficiently resourced to keep pace with the PRC's rise and that the South China Sea will be “virtually a Chinese lake” in 2030 unless U.S. policy changes to address these realities.

Speaking at an event last week hosted by the National Committee on United States – China Relations, former Secretaries of Defense Harold Brown, William Perry, William Cohen, and Chuck Hagel recommended strengthening military-to-military relationships as the best means of staving off direct conflict between the U.S. and the PRC.

Over at The Diplomat, Thuc Pham lays out the key diplomatic, economic, and military moves the United States make take to “deter Chinese coercion in the South China Sea,” while Victor Robert Lee examines evidence of “ecocide” in the Asian Pacific.

CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative published an excellent expose on China’s artificial island project with updated photographs and information of recent runway construction. Meanwhile, AMTI’s Ernest Bower and Conor Cronin explain why “Time Is of the Essence in the South China Sea Arbitration Case” currently pending before the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please feel free to email us with breaking news or relevant documents.

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