By Dr. Scott Simon



Taiwan, despite its anomalous diplomatic status, is a key stakeholder in the security structure of the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan’s willingness to accommodate itself to strategic ambiguity has so far been decisive in maintaining the peace that has reigned since 1945 as the foundation of our collective well-being. In this paper, I examine Taiwan’s claims and presence in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, looking at the history of sovereignty disputes and Taiwan’s contribution to the formulation of governance strategies. In some ways, Taiwan’s claims (e.g. to Senkaku/Diaoyutai in the East China Sea) overlap with those of the People’s Republic of China. Yet, Taiwan has also exercised leadership in creating innovation civilian-based solutions to avoid direct conflict with neighbouring states. Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts in both the East and South China Sea have remained consistent regardless of changes in government in Taipei, but are increasingly challenged by assertive Chinese actions. In this context, understanding the prospects for peace in the Indo-Pacific must include consideration of the continuing existence of the Republic of China on Taiwan, a reflection of the meaning of Taiwan’s “status quo,” and respect for the interests of Taiwan’s 24 million inhabitants. 



            The ocean frontiers of the Indo-Pacific region have become among the most dangerous waters of the world. On September 30, 2018, Chinese destroyer PRC170 challenged the USS Decatur in a standard Freedom of Navigation (FON) operation near Gaven Reef in the South China Sea. Normally, this area is considered low risk because Gaven Reef is neither an island nor a rock. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it is a low-tide elevation, which does not contribute to claims to territorial sea. The PRC170 approached the USS Decatur within 45 metres of its bow, forcing the US ship to manoeuvre to avoid collision. Center for Strategic and International Studies Bonnie Glaser said that China’s habitual rules of engagement were “thrown out the window,” most likely with approval of President Xi Jinping.[1] US Vice-president Mike Pence called this action “reckless harassment,” promising that US forces will continue to operate wherever international law allows and national interests demand. In the same speech, he demonstrated support for Taiwan by calling China’s poaching of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies a threat to stability.[2] Pence thus hinted at an important but often neglected piece in the security structure of the Indo-Pacific: the role of Taiwan as a stakeholder and security partner. 


            In this essay, I analyze the historical roots and contemporary standing of disputes over the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and Taiwan. The risk of war is increasing, given that China’s military modernization is driven by goals to deter Taiwan independence, project China’s power in the East and South China Seas, and develop capacity to strike US forces in Guam.[3]  In this context, Taiwan’s claims and contributions in this maritime regime must be taken very seriously. Taiwan has long contributed to the international liberal order. Its government, the Republic of China (ROC) was a founding member of the United Nations. It is a beacon for democracy and human rights in Asia.  As a link in the First Island Chain, it is a necessary ally in the defence of Japan and North America. A military conflict around Taiwan would certainly provoke one of the most dramatic refugee crises in history, a meltdown of the global economy, and irreparable breakdowns in the production chains of the IT industry. Due to its contributions to democracy, economic stability, and regional security, Taiwan’s autonomy is a core interest to all parties invested in a free and open Indo-Pacific. What role does Taiwan play in the region? How can we best cooperate with Taiwan to guarantee the continuation of the peaceful status quo that underlies our shared prosperity?



            The contested territories of the Western Pacific should not be framed in terms of a “divided China,” but rather as a security architecture constructed during post-war treaty making. The foundation is the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty (SFPT) that concluded the war and redefined Japan’s territorial limits. The way in which the SFPT disposed of Japanese-administered Taiwan created a situation in which two states claimed to represent China, but neither had jurisdiction over the other. It also created ambiguity about maritime territories from the Kurils to the Antarctic. Yet, the SFTP system also laid the basis for defence and security in the Western Pacific for decades. It guaranteed the necessary conditions for the democratization of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; as well as the infrastructure construction and economic growth that brought prosperity to countries on both sides of the Pacific Rim. Ever since the late 1960s, leaders in Japan and the West hoped that China would join this system as an equal partner, democratizing like the other countries as its economy matured. Instead, China seems increasingly determined to undermine this system, expand its territory, and put an end to the autonomy of Taiwan.



Photo: LS Mike Goluboff, MARPAC Imaging Services

The main dispute was never which state ruled the Chinese Mainland and which ruled Taiwan, since those were all clear facts on the ground. The questions were which state represented China internationally; and how third states should maintain diplomatic relations with both societies. The Honorable Paul Martin Sr., Secretary of State for External Affairs explained: “We consider that the isolation of Communist China from a large part of normal international relations is dangerous. We are prepared to accept the reality of the victory in mainland China in 1949….We consider, however, that the effective political independence of Taiwan is a political reality, too.”[4] Negotiations with Beijing represented a calculated risk taken by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as he dared to challenge the ROC, which was still on the UN Security Council and a key ally of the United States.


            Canadian negotiators took the political and social reality of Taiwan seriously. The Cabinet instructed negotiators to “avoid any commitment that would deny Canada the possibility of recognizing Taiwan as an independent state at some time in the future if circumstances should make that feasible.”[5] Although China tried to persuade Canada to state that Taiwan is an integral part of the PRC, the final wording of the 1970 Joint Communiqué was “The Chinese Government reaffirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. The Canadian Government takes note of this position of the Chinese Government.” The phrasing “taking note” was intended to avoid disagreement in the short term. Negotiator Mitchell Sharp subsequently explained to Parliament that this means Canada will “neither challenge nor endorse” China’s position on Taiwan.[6] The agreement led to the termination of diplomatic relations with the ROC as the government of China while saying nothing about who governs Taiwan.


            Canadian diplomats were left with the job of maintaining relations with both states. Although the ROC no longer represented China, the overarching framework permitted substantive relations with Taiwan. Since 1970, trade between Canada and Taiwan has steadily increased, making Taiwan into Canada’s 11th largest trading partner and the 5th largest in Asia. Much less is said about Taiwan’s role, with claims in the South and East China Sea, as a stakeholder in the defence and security of the Indo-Pacific.




            Taiwan’s territory in the South China Sea is the 0,51 km2 Taiping Island, distinctive because it has freshwater and space to grow crops or raise animals. Until the 19th century, although fishermen and explorers visited the islands, no state claimed uninhabited maritime features in these waters as exclusive territory. As France expanded into Indo-China, the 1887 Sino-Vietnamese Boundary Convention defined the Paracels and Spratlys as Chinese territory. Until 1930, the ROC demonstrated sovereignty over Taiping by land surveys and administration of phosphate exploration licences. From 1930 to 1933, France took advantage of conflict between China and Japan to occupy features of the Spratlys and established a weather base on Taiping. Taiping was seized in 1939 by Japan, to be used as a naval base. [7]  After Japan lost the islands in the SFPT, the ROC defined their claims to the area with a dashed line.[8] The ROC regained Taiping in 1956 and maintained uninterrupted military presence until the island was turned over to the Coast Guard in 2000. [9] Taiwan now administers Taiping from Kaohsiung.


            Although Taiping is 1500 kilometres south of Kaohsiung and has no permanent civilian occupants, it is worth considering what the Taiwanese do there. Since 2007, Kaohsiung has managed a turtle reserve on the island and facilitated research on preservation of other species. Since 2009, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has collaborated with Taiwan there to monitor greenhouse gases. Taiwan hopes to transform Taiping into a centre for ecological preservation and climate research. These intentions contrast starkly to China’s construction and militarization in the archipelagos since 2015.


            In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled that there is no legal basis for China’s “nine-dash line,” that none of the contested features constitute islands under UNCLOS, that China violated Philippines sovereignty by constructing artificial islands and interfering with fishing and other activities, and severely damaged coral reefs.  China dismissed the ruling. Taiwan offered to assist the PCA by providing information (the offer was denied) and ultimately rejected the court’s identification of Taiping Island as a rock. Taiwan, however, maintained that these maritime disputes should be settled through multilateral negotiations, in the spirit of setting aside differences and promoting joint development.[10]



Image by Pte. Leona Chaisson, Base Imaging

In spite of the common historical root of Chinese and Taiwanese claims to the islands, the two states have developed different approaches. China maintains its claim to exclusive sovereignty over the entire ocean area and adjacent air space defined by a U-shaped line, whereas Taiwan is developing a land-based understanding.[11] In 2016, President Ma Ying-jeou unveiled his South China Sea Peace Initiative Roadmap, and negotiated a fisheries agreement with the Philippines. His successor Tsai Ing-Wen likewise pledged “through negotiations based on the basis of equality, to work with all states concerned to advance peace and stability in the South China Sea, and to jointly conserve and develop resources in the region.”[12] Taiwan has emerged as a reliable partner for sustainable fishing, scientific research and freedom of navigation. Taiwan’s presence there is part of the security infrastructure that prevents China from permanently enclosing the South China Sea. With Taiwanese agreement, it could be used as a base for FON operations.



            The main disputed area in the East China Sea are five islets, the largest being 3.6 km2 in area, which Japan calls Senkaku and Taiwan calls Diaoyutai.  The argument made in Beijing and Taipei is that since Japan formerly administered Senkaku from Taiwan, the islands should be considered part of Taiwan. This ignores when and how Japan gained the territories. Senkaku was incorporated into Okinawa by Cabinet decision in January 1895. Taiwan became Japanese three months later in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Senkaku is thus part of Okinawa.


            Okinawa, which was formally the Ryukyu Kingdom and became a Japanese prefecture as late as 1879, posed a challenge to drafters of the SFPT. Steering between the possibilities of treating Okinawa as an integral part of Japan like Kyushu or as a formerly independent country to be liberated like Korea, the US after the Chinese Revolution sought to take strategic control of Okinawa in a way that would maintain Japan in the Western bloc.[13] The SFPT thus placed Okinawa, including Senkaku, under UN trusteeship with the US as sole administering authority. The Okinawa Reversion Agreement (1971) eventually returned Okinawa (including Senkaku) to Japan.  Both China and Taiwan contested the agreement, reiterating claims to Senkaku.[14]  President Richard Nixon seemed to validate their claims when, in the context of normalizing relations with Beijing while maintaining a defence partnership with Taipei, his administration stated that only “administrative rights” were transferred to Japan.[15] 


            This territorial dispute has been important in Taiwan. Former President Ma Ying-jeou even wrote his thesis about it.[16] After his 2008 inauguration, protesters escorted by Coast Guard vessels entered Japanese waters and circumnavigated the largest island without disembarking. In 2012, however, Ma proposed an East China Sea Peace Initiative based on the principle of “safeguarding sovereignty, shelving disputes, pursuing peace and reciprocity, and promoting joint exploration and development.”[17] Former President Lee Teng-hui declared (after leaving office) to the Japanese media that the islands are Japanese.[18] But, the Tsai Ing-wen administration followed KMT precedents by reasserting sovereignty over the islands.[19] Repeated ROC claims to the islands are unhelpful to relations between Taiwan and Japan or the US, even as public statements by Taiwanese leaders are intended mostly to reassure China that Taiwan is not moving toward formal independence. It is encouraging that Taiwan and Japan have been able to shelve disputes and sign fishing agreements.


            The Senkaku issue is a priority for Japan, and should be for Japan’s allies because of its strategic location. Japan has the strongest legal claim because of the Okinawa Reversion Agreement. The United States has repeatedly made it clear that Senkaku falls under the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. The risk is always present that China can mobilize Chinese nationalists in Taiwan around this issue to drive a wedge between Taiwan and Japan. Taiwan’s claims to Senkaku are thus part of the security risk in the region, and can only be mitigated if Taiwanese leaders feel secure when dealing with both China and Chinese nationalists at home. All of these territorial disputes are linked, which is why the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty cannot be avoided indefinitely.




            Taiwan is the most intractable conflict resulting from the SFPT. In 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-shek, and Winston Churchill decided that Japanese-controlled Manchuria, Taiwan, and Penghu would be “returned” to the ROC. After Japanese surrender, Chiang took control of these territories as trustee of the Allied Forces. When the PRC was established on October 1, 1949, Chiang, the ROC government and ruling party (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) retreated to Taiwan. It seemed possible for the PRC to extend its rule to Taiwan until the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, and President Truman dispatched the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait. The Cold War ensured the ROC a second life on Taiwan.


            Debates about recognizing China made drafting a peace treaty difficult. A compromise was needed between countries that recognized the PRC and wanted to transfer Taiwan to it, and the US, which intended to maintain military installations on Taiwan. The final agreement was that Japan would negotiate its own relationship with China, that Taiwan’s future would not be determined by the SFPT, and that neither claimant to China would attend the peace conference.[20] This treaty history has led legal scholars and various states to declare in one way or another that the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty remains unresolved.[21] The SFPT entered into force on April 28, 1952.


            The Treaty of Taipei, signed between Tokyo and Taipei on the day the SFPT was implemented, is the key to understanding Taiwan’s situation.  Like the SFPT, Article 2 stated that Japan renounced Taiwan and Penghu without specifying a recipient.  Unlike the SFPT, a subsequent article stipulated that disposition of property would be resolved by transferring private property to ROC citizens and converting Japanese state property to ROC state property.  Article 10 deemed ROC nationals to be inhabitants of Taiwan and Penghu and their descendants.[22] This wording, which neither defined Chinese on the Mainland as ROC nationals nor specified ROC territorial boundaries, safeguarded for Japan the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC. The fact that the ROC could sign a treaty with Japan in 1952, however, disproves PRC claims that the ROC disappeared from human history in 1949. It can even be said that the agreement gave ROC sovereignty to the people of Taiwan. This fact did not change when Japan established diplomatic relations with Beijing and unilaterally declared prior treaties to be null and void.


            Although the ROC kept Taiwan under authoritarian rule for decades, spawning a Taiwanese Independence Movement, the people of Taiwan eventually made the ROC their own. Martial law was lifted in 1987. The Legislature was directly elected by the people for the first time in 1992; and the President in 1996. China reacted to Taiwan’s first presidential election by firing missiles into the waters around Taiwan. President Clinton deployed the US Navy to the region, but more importantly the Taiwanese remained firm in their resolve. Taiwan’s vibrant democracy now demonstrates that their state, under any name, is a sovereign political entity.



Photo: Corporal Stuart Evans, BORDEN Imaging Services

The future status of Taiwan remains debated. Some Taiwanese desire formal independence from the ROC and its ties to a larger, historical China. Others hope that both sides can be united into one democratic China. Without domestic consensus, Taiwanese leaders have little choice but to support the “status quo,” protecting the Constitution and political institutions of the ROC, while governing only Taiwan. This willingness to live with ambiguity allows Taiwan to maintain effective sovereignty without directly challenging the idea of a historical “One China.” It also permits China to claim Taiwan without annexing it. On the diplomatic front, other states have complied by maintaining official diplomatic relations with one side, while simultaneously cultivating substantive diplomatic relations with the other.  


The PRC is increasingly willing to directly challenge these arrangements. In President Xi Jinping’s January 2, 2019, speech on the 40th anniversary of the 1979 “Message to Taiwan Compatriots,” he defined “One country, two systems” as Taiwan’s only future and reiterated the possibility of resolving the issue through military means. In doing so, he unilaterally changed the definition of the “1992 Consensus,” which the KMT had until then presented in Taiwan as “One China, different interpretations,” giving Taiwan room for autonomy. In what seems like preparation for war, Xi said that the issue cannot be pushed to another generation. Xi’s speech, which probably marked a policy change in Beijing, was rejected by both Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and the opposition KMT. The world must prepare to respond if the goal is to secure the status quo.




          From the perspective of Beijing, the “status quo” is an ideological project based on the argument that the ROC ended in 1949. The fact that the ROC continues to exist on Taiwan, and maintains official diplomatic relations with even a handful of small states, directly refutes this claim. This is why Beijing works so hard to entice states to switch their diplomatic recognition. This is also why US Vice-President Pence was correct to call these diplomatic maneuvers a threat to regional stability. Although China tries to camouflage its ambitions with rhetoric of “unification” or “reunification,” it is more accurate to say that China hopes to annex Taiwan. China challenges the SFPT system, the post-war security framework that created autonomy for Taiwan, secured Okinawa for Japan, and set the boundaries of the First Island Chain. China thus threatens the freedom of navigation that has made possible shared prosperity in the Indo-Pacific for decades.


            Beijing tries to justify extra-territorial claims by passing laws about territories outside their jurisdiction. In 1992, China unilaterally claimed a vast swath of the South China Sea and Taiwan in its Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone. In 1996, when ratifying UNCLOS, China declared that their participation is contingent upon their territorial claims and that they do not accept UNCLOS dispute mechanisms. In 2005, China passed the “Anti-secession” Law stipulating that any move toward Taiwan Independence would be cause for military action. Since 2015, China has constructed military bases on artificial features across the South China Sea, with inevitable ecological damage. This all indicates that China is willing to flaunt international law and use military means to expand its territory.


            In the face of Chinese aggression, Canada and other democratic countries will have to remind China and the world that, since territorial disputes arise from the SFPT, they are of concern to all parties to that treaty. This will mean prioritizing cooperation with Japan and the US to maintain a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” a strategy first announced by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2016. This will include Canadian support of Freedom of Navigation activities. It may also include a closer security and defence relationship with Taiwan, following Japanese and American precedents. Canada may wish to consider port calls in Taiwan, passage through the Taiwan Straits, and cooperation in activities on Taiping. Circumstances may even call for a gradual normalization of relations with Taiwan. It is important to demonstrate to China that securing the status quo is a core interest of the global community, and not limited to China-US strategic competition. Taking a strong unified stance may be the only way to maintain peace and prosperity across the Indo-Pacific region.


Dr. Scott Simon, Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa (


[1] Ben Werner, “China’s Atypical Response to US Navy FONOPS May Be a Message to Trump Administration,” USNI News, October 3, 2018,

[2] Mike Pence, “Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China,” White House, October 4, 2018,

[3] Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, November 2018,, 33

[4] D. Barry Kirkham, “The International Legal Status of Formosa,” Canadian Yearbook of International Law 6 (1968): 144.

[5] Privy Council Office. 1969. Cabinet Conclusions, Meeting Date 1969/01/30. RG2, Privy Council Office, Series A-5-a, Volume 6340, Access code 90.

[6] John M. Fraser, “Diplomatic Dancing,” Globe and Mail, October 15, 2005, A28.

[7] Shicun Wu, Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea: a Chinese Perspective (Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2013), 36-38. 

[8] Ralf Emmers, Geopolitics and Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia (London: Routledge, 2010), 67.

[9] Emmers, Geopolitics, 68.

[10] ROC (Republic of China), Peace in the South China Sea, National Territory Secure Forever (Taipei: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2016).

[11] Lynn Kuok, “Tides of Change: Taiwan’s Evolving Position in the South China Sea and why Other Actors Should Take Notice.” East Asia Policy Paper 5 (May). Washington: Brookings Institute, 2015.

[12] Ing-wen Tsai, Speech at the opening ceremony of the Academia Historica special exhibition “Sustainable Governance and Enduring Peace: An Exhibition Commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Recovery of the South China Sea Islands.” Taipei: Office of the President, 2016.

[13] Kimie Hara, Cold War Frontiers in the Asia-Pacific : Divided Territories in the San Francisco System (London: Routledge, 2007), 168. 

[14] Hara, Cold War Frontiers, 178-179.

[15] Emmers, Geopolitics, 5.

[16] Ying-jeou Ma, “Trouble over Oily Waters: Legal Problems of Seabed Boundaries and Foreign Investments in the East China Sea” (S.J.D. thesis, Harvard Law School, 1990). 

[17] ROC, “East China Sea Peace Initiative Implementation Guidelines.” Taipei: Mainland Affairs Council,, 2012.

[18] AFP, “Lee Teng-hui arrives in Japan,” Taipei Times, September 5, 2009, 4.

[19] Stacy Hsu, “Taiwan Asserts Sovereignty over Diaoyutai,” Taipei Times, July 19, 2018, 3.

[20] Hara, Cold War Frontiers, 65

[21] Lung-chu Chen and W.M. Reisman, “Who Owns Taiwan: A Search for International Title,” Yale Law Journal 81 (4, 1972): 645.

[22] Treaty of Peace between the Republic of China and Japan, April 28, 1952,

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