Taiwan’s government, a claimant to the disputed South China Sea but unable to make noise diplomatically as China squelches its international profile, is trying a new approach to draw attention to and ease tension over the resource-rich region: environmental preservation.
The Marine National Park Headquarters in the southern city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s jumping-off point for the South China Sea, plans to set up an ocean research center on a coral atoll under its control in the disputed region and share findings with other interested governments.
Officials in Taiwan will then invite other claimants to share in future research, which they say may show that the fisheries they’re fighting over have been depleted. The government may eventually let tourists visit the 1.74 square-kilometer Dongsha atoll now populated by 200 Coast Guard patrolmen, tropical fish, and the occasional sea turtle.
Taiwan can hardly assert itself in the region as other South China Sea disputants have done, using harsh diplomatic language and naval clashes. So the environmental push means staying in the fight – without fighting.
Taiwan's tenuous relationship with China, another claimant of the disputed sea, blocks it from negotiating with other governments through the usual diplomatic channels. But environmental research covering the entire disputed area could turn favorable attention to Taiwan while not getting it in any trouble. Other governments would be reminded at the same time that Taiwan is sticking to its claim.
“Environmental protection is the least sensitive issue, and it’s nonaggressive if you talk about national parks or inviting the tourism industry, so it will be easily accepted not only by the People's Republic of China but also other neighboring countries,” said Nathan Liu, associate international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan.
Taiwan and China cite the same reason for their claims to the sea area, which encompasses 250 barely populated islets, a network of shipping lanes, and possible undersea reserves of oil and natural gas.
The Republic of China, Taiwan’s legal name, and its 1940s civil war adversary the People’s Republic of China both argue that the Chinese Navy was active in the sea during the Han and Ming dynasties. China, meanwhile, claims not only the 3.5 million square-kilometer ocean area but also Taiwan itself, and uses its might to forbid countries elsewhere in Asia from formal dialogue with officials in Taipei.
But since 2008, Taiwanese officials have sought to get along better with China after six decades of hostilities, another reason for their soft approach to the sea dispute.
Yet self-ruled Taiwan does not want to be forgotten by the more aggressive claimants, as it was in July, when China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to South China Sea confidence-building guidelines. China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines also claim all or parts of the South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos and Taiwan’s ecological research zone.
“Ecological protection is a duty that the whole world respects,” says Coast Guard Deputy Minister Cheng Chang-hsiung. “In the face of disputes of course we hope to use soft power to express ourselves and let other countries understand our friendly intent. We hope to settle disputes peacefully and don’t want armed conflict.”
Naval clashes over control of the sea resulted in fatalities in 1974 and 1988. Taiwan’s Coast Guard wasn’t involved, but it occasionally chases off foreign fishing boats that come near the atoll.
Taiwan also occupies the largest Spratly isle, and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou may travel to inspect it as early as this week, according to local media reports.
Other governments keen to understand the South China Sea may want to know through Taiwan’s research on the atoll that climate change has blanched the region’s coral, trash generated on land floats across the sea, and some marine species are growing scarce due to overfishing, Lin says.
So far, no other government has reacted publicly to Taiwan’s gambit, but none has fought it. Local officials expect a bigger splash when tourists, not just the occasional research team with special permission, start landing on the pincer-shaped atoll that was designated a national park in 2007.
The Coast Guard has begun to raise awareness of Dongsha by taking university students there during summer break. In August it took more than 40 students on two overnight trips and plans to extend the program next summer.
But further tourist development could hamper Taiwan’s preservation goal, some fear. The flat atoll, dominated by a grassy lagoon, supports a desalination plant to supply the Coast Guard with fresh water and an airport to handle weekly flights for government employees or researchers. There's no hotel or convenience store.
Ferry trips from Kaohsiung to the atoll – 460 kilometers away – take at least half a day and may cost more than the average traveler wants to pay, the park service says.
"Once it has been open just five years, the natural environment will collapse, so the government needs to emphasize conservation," says Huang Chih-chen, a National Kaohsiung Marine University ocean leisure management major who was invited to see the atoll last month.