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China’s Artificial Islands ‘Not Territories’ — Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou

Yasuto Tanaka




In an exclusive interview with Sankei Shimbun Newspaper in Taipei on July 13th, former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou criticized the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (Hague, Netherlands) regarding the South China Sea territorial dispute.


He cited reasons, such as the non-recognition of Taiwan as a party involved in the conflict. “The procedure was very unfair, and the rationale was also mistaken,” he said.  



He criticized China for not complying with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “which they themselves ratified.”


The Mischief Reef, in particular, “has had an area increase of 2,300 times, its excessive,” he said.


Construction is shown on Mischief Reef, in the Spratly Islands, the disputed South China Sea in this June 19, 2017 satellite image released by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative to Reuters on June 29, 2017. 


Ma Ying-jeou emphasised: “Although the construction [of artificial islands] is not violating international law, they cannot be claimed as territories.”  


The maintenance of runways on the artificial islands, he said, can also “affect the [regional] safety, their future use must be closely monitored.”


Below are excerpts from the interview with the former Taiwanese president:



The court ruled that Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island), located in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and functionally under the jurisdiction of Taiwan, was a “rock.”

Taiping Island is a small island with few visitors, but numerous misunderstandings. The natural spring water on Taiping Island is very good, over 200 people live on the island and it even has medical facilities. During the Japanese era, there was even a factory.


The ruling, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Article 121, paragraph 3, does “not include government employees” in the definition of “Human Habitation.” It is too strict, and alters the original meaning of the provision. Taiping Island is not a rock, it is an island. The trial procedure was very unfair, and the rationale was also mistaken.


During my time as president, I argued against the claims of the Philippines. When the ruling came out, the Democratic Progressive Party president (Tsai Ing-wen), said, “I do not accept it,” which is exactly the same as me. 41 countries support the ruling and 58 countries oppose it. A year on, none of the Southeast Asian countries have undertaken any important meetings.


In 2015, I proposed the “South China Sea Peace Initiative.” Sovereignty cannot be divided, but resources can be shared. The measures which resolved the North Sea Oil Field conflict would be useful. There are no losers in peace and no winners in war. America is interested in navigational and flight-path freedom, not resources. The freedom of international waters is an important element, which the mainland and Taiwan both agree on.


Chinese structures and an airstrip on the man-made Subi Reef at the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane on April 21, 2017. (AP)


Reclaimed land does not produce territories. According to international law, artificial creations have no territorial waters, they only have a 500-meter safety zone. Communist China is undertaking reclamation of seven areas: three are reefs, and four are low-tide elevations, which do not have territorial seas. Mischief Reef, in particular, has had an area increase of 2,300 times, its excessive.


The amount of territory to be gained in this way is either extremely limited or none at all. Communist China should comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which they themselves ratified. Although there are no international laws regulating the construction of runways, [regional] safety could be affected, so their future use must be closely monitored.



The American Trump administration has not abandoned their original claims [regarding navigational freedom], but there are not as many naval ships as there were. Until the resolution of the North Korea situation, there will likely be no significant moves.


The current situation is different from 2002 when the  “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” was adopted. The influence of Communist China and the situation in American is different to that of 15 years ago. If Communist China were able to gain the consent of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) and formulate a “South China Sea Code of Conduct,” the United States would likely support it. America initially opposed both the “One Belt, One Road” Project and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), but then subsequently agreed.


Mr. Ma, toward the end of your administration you refuted Japan’s exclusive economic zone surrounding the Okinotori Islands (Tokyo Prefecture).

We call Okinotori Island, or Okinotorishima. We have never refuted that it is a Japanese territory. However, nine square meters is too small for “human habitation” to be possible. The exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles is larger than the Japanese mainland, and is unfair.


The Taiwanese people were furious that fishermen were arrested and stripped for fishing in [what Taiwan claims is] international waters. We have no intention of going to war with Japan, we just want to catch fish. I am not “anti-Japan,” but Japan should use more delicate methods.



Ma Ying-jeou was born in Hong Kong on July 13th, 1956, but traced his family’s roots to Hunan Province. He graduated from the National Taiwan University in 1972, and completed a PhD in Law at Harvard University in the United States. After working as an interpreter for President Chiang Ching-kuo, and then as justice minister, he served as the mayor of Taipei from 1998 to 2006. He won the 2008 presidential election, and was inaugurated in May of the same year. After serving two terms, he retired in May 2017 after his term expired.



Yasuto Tanaka is the chief correspondent of  Sankei Shimbun Taipei bureau.



(Click here and here to read the original articles in Japanese.)


Yasuto Tanaka is Taipei bureau chief for the Sankei Shimbun.

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