Home / Articles / Why Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s Day-Trip to Taiping Island was Such a Big Deal
When Taiwan’s soon-to-step-down President Ma Ying-jeou made a pre-Lunar New Year’s visit to Itu Aba / Taiping Island in late January 2016, the international-lawyer-turned-president was reaffirming a long-standing claim that the Republic of China held sovereignty over the largest landform (as well as many smaller ones) in the hotly disputed South China Sea region. Remarks Ma made on the island reiterated often-stated bases for the ROC’s claims. A presidential appearance on the island was not without precedent: Ma loosely reprised a 2008 expedition by his ever-controversial predecessor Chen Shui-bian. Yet, Ma’s move drew sharp rebukes abroad, most notably from Washington and also from Hanoi and Manila. Several contexts of Ma’s gambit made the otherwise-seemingly-anodyne assertion of a well-known position more significant and controversial.
Ma’s “Peace Initiatives” and Eroding the Beijing-Taipei Alignment on the South China Sea
First, Ma’s visit and related statements came against the backdrop of policy initiatives launched during his second term that had begun to distance Taiwan’s position—subtly but still significantly—from the PRC’s stance on the South China Sea disputes, and the East China Sea disputes as well. Taipei’s and Beijing’s approaches have long been extremely similar. The PRC has framed its claims in terms of a 9-dash U-shaped line derived from an 11-dash line that the ROC had adopted in the 1940s and has retained to this day. Like its predecessors, the Ma administration and Ma himself have insisted that, from the perspective of international law, geography or history, the disputed territories and surrounding waters belong to the Republic of China. The history-based arguments have invoked the same long but very thin and (beginning in the late nineteenth century) interrupted pattern of Chinese presence and governance in the region, and the Second World War peace settlements that pledged to restore territories improperly taken by Japan. In these fundamental respects, Taipei’s and Beijing’s accounts have been strikingly similar.
Beijing has been content to regard Taiwan’s postwar occupation of Taiping Island as an exercise of “Chinese” sovereignty which, in Beijing’s view, has appertained exclusively to the PRC since 1949. The PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Taiwan Affairs Office notably reacted with relative equanimity to Ma’s visit to Taiping Island, asserting that many of the principles Ma endorsed were consistently supported by the PRC, reaffirming that the island was Chinese sovereign territory, and reminding all concerned that safeguarding Chinese national sovereignty was the common obligation of people on both sides of the Strait.
Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative (ECSPI) in August 2012, his very similar South China Sea Peace Initiative (SCSPI) in May 2015, and related statements recapitulated in summary form the usual claims of indisputable sovereignty and its bases. The Initiatives’ operative elements did not include specific propositions to which Beijing could object in principle. Addressing the disputes with Japan over the East China Sea and with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimants in the South China Sea, the Peace Initiatives (and other official ROC statements) called for shelving disputes over sovereignty (an issue on which the ROC would not compromise), refraining from non-peaceful means and actions that would escalate tensions, pursuing cooperation (including a “code of conduct” among the parties and, eventually, shared development of resources), upholding freedom of navigation and overflight, and respecting the spirit and principles of international law (including the United Nations Charter and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)).
Although there was much here that broadly resembled positions Beijing has officially endorsed, immanent in Ma’s peace initiatives and echoed in his statements on Taiping Island (where Ma specifically invoked the SCSCPI) were elements that chipped away at the once-close cross-Strait alignment. Ma’s moves distanced Taiwan’s positions from the Mainland’s, reduced Taiwan’s problematic and anomalous adverse posture toward the U.S. and its allies and friends in the Western Pacific, and sought to advance Taiwan’s chronic quest for stature in the international system. Behind language that resembled Beijing’s, there were apparent, if often implicit, contrasts between the approaches of the two regimes on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait.
The Peace Initiatives’ calls to shelve disputes over sovereignty, forego aggressive or destabilizing actions, and make the two seas into “seas of peace and cooperation” cast a harsh light on Beijing’s policies and actions that had contributed to troubles in the East China Sea (including the militarized confrontation between the PRC and Japan in 2013) and the South China Sea (beginning with a resurgence of then-recently-dormant tensions around 2010 and a second spike in connection with China’s large-scale land reclamation projects and the U.S.’s response in 2015). The support in the Peace Initiative (and more ambitiously and in greater detail in Ma’s remarks at Taiping Island) for codes of conduct and shared development of natural resources stood in contrast—and seeming rebuke—to China’s role in the failure to move from a 2002 Declaration of Conduct to a full-fledged Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, and the unraveling of an oil and gas joint-development arrangement with Japan that presaged the deterioration in China-Japan relations since the turn of the last decade.
A similar implied contrast was embedded in Ma’s call at Taiping Island (and specifically pegged to the SCSPI) to say “yes” to cooperation, sharing, and pragmatism, and “no” to confrontation, monopoly, and intransigence. In the same general vein, Ma expanded on another element of the SCSPI in connection with his trip to Taiping Island. He stressed an agenda of using the island for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, scientific research, and other peaceful purposes. Ma pointed to concrete measures undertaken to implement these commitments, and also noted that security on Taiping Island had been shifted years ago from the navy to the coast guard. The aims Ma articulated paralleled what Beijing had asserted were among the purposes of its island building program in the South China Sea, but Ma seemed to be pointing to a contrast with Beijing’s actions, including tension-stoking militarization of newly built-up islets and the ensuing encounters with U.S. naval ships and aircraft.
The SCSPI’s imperative to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight generally tracked Beijing’s often-repeated indications that it had no intention to, or interest in, impeding freedom of transit in one of the world’s busiest maritime crossroads. But, here too, there is a seemingly minor gap that may reflect a fundamental difference of principle. Unlike the view that appears to be embodied in Taiwan’s Peace Initiatives, Beijing’s position has stopped short of unambiguously acknowledging a legally binding international obligation to allow unfettered passage—especially in the case of U.S. Navy ships operating beyond China’s internationally accepted territorial waters.
The Peace Initiatives’ (and other Taiwanese official statements’) emphasis on international law points to what is likely the most fundamental area of divergence. Taiwan does not spell out in detail the interpretations of international law that it calls upon all parties to follow. But it appears to be a view that is in some key respects significantly closer to that of the United States and several claimant states in the region than to the at least incipiently revisionist and often murky notions that Beijing deploys to support its highly expansive claims, especially in the South China Sea. There is, at least, nothing in the SCSPI, the ECSPI and other recent statements from Taiwan that goes as far as the PRC has (or departs as far from U.S. views) in asserting, implying or, at least, not disclaiming views of legal rights that include: sovereign rights over waters within the U-shaped line, historic rights to waters in the same area, rights to territorial seas drawn from baselines drawn capaciously around tiny and scattered landforms, national security-based rights in vast Exclusive Economic Zones beyond territorial seas, or extensive rights to regulate foreign civilian and military aircraft in an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea (which Beijing declared in November 2013) and, possibly, the South China Sea (which some PRC sources have insisted may be declared in the future). Perhaps particularly telling in this regard is the language in the ECSPI that proposes submitting the Senkaku / Diaoyutai islands dispute with Japan to binding adjudication by the International Court of Justice, and the passage in the SCSPI—reprised in statements made by Taipei in connection with the arbitration claim that the Philippines brought against the PRC over the South China Sea—that bases the ROC’s maritime claims primarily on UNCLOS and the United Nations Charter.
By underscoring and perhaps extending cross-Strait differences on territorial and maritime issues that Beijing regards as highly sensitive, Ma’s valedictory visit to Taiping Island became more significant because of the shadow—and spotlight—it cast on the question of what his successor Tsai Ing-wen might do. Ma’s trip seemed unlikely to bind Tsai’s hands—as critics suggested he had tried to do when he held a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Singapore in November 2015 to reaffirm the 1992 Consensus and “one China” (with differing interpretations) framework for cross-Strait relations. Tsai seemed, if anything, even less likely to be constrained by Ma’s travel to Taiping Island. Ma and Tsai come from opposite sides of Taiwan’s basic partisan divide and Ma’s trip came in the immediate aftermath of a lopsided electoral loss to Tsai and her party.
Moreover, Tsai seemed to have little inclination or political reason to alter substantially the South and East China Seas policies of the Ma administration. The traditional ROC claims in the two seas retained popular support in Taiwan. Although rarely reluctant to criticize Ma’s moves as a lame-duck president, the reaction to Ma’s visit from Tsai and the DPP was muted in tone and largely consistent in substance with the established ROC positions. Although some DPP sources grumbled about the inappropriateness of the high-profile post-election ploy, Tsai and the DPP leadership merely rebuffed an invitation to send a representative in Ma’s entourage, citing deference to proper institutional roles for a party whose team had not yet taken office. Tsai noted her consistent insistence that the ROC had sovereignty over Taiping Island and that all parties should pursue peace and stability, assure freedom of navigation and overflight, and address their disputes under the framework of international law, including UNCLOS.
Thus, talk among her critics that Tsai—who is seeking closer ties with Japan and more robust economic engagement with Southeast Asia—might resurrect former President Lee Teng-hui’s suggestion that the East China Sea islands belonged to Japan or that she might repudiate the venerable 11-dash line was, at best, speculative and seemingly far-fetched. Still, a more modest but potentially significant (especially to Beijing) adjustment in Taiwan’s position loomed as a more serious possibility. The incoming Tsai administration could expect continued interest from Washington in Taiwan’s moving to “clarify” the legal nature of the U-shaped line, specifically by limiting it as a claim only to sovereignty over all of the landforms that fell within, and to whatever maritime rights sovereignty over such territory conferred under the international law of the sea. This seemingly technical legal change would put pressure on Beijing over a specific issue that has been a long-standing and recently growing source of frustration for the United States. Over many years, U.S. sources have repeatedly and futilely pressed China to repudiate decisively the notion that its rights in the South China Sea are sovereign or sovereignty-like claims to the water itself rather than to sovereignty over the landforms and appurtenant rights over maritime zones. Chinese official sources often suggest (and unofficial ones sometimes claim) that Beijing has done so, but U.S. analysts rightly maintain that they have not.
More broadly and no less importantly, the sought-after clarification of the ROC’s claim of maritime rights would align Taiwan with the U.S.’s increasingly robust pushback against the PRC’s claims to highly expansive authority in the disputed ocean regions. These issues of maritime rights in the South China Sea have been a recurrent focus of friction between the U.S. and China and, most recently, have spurred the U.S. Navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations, including one in October 2015 near landforms in the Spratly chain that have been the focus of China’s large-scale reclamation projects in the South China Sea and another in January 2016 near the Paracel Islands.
Worrying Washington in a Time of Transition: Cross-Strait Relations and U.S. Interests in the South China Sea
Understood in these terms, Ma’s journey to Taiping Island would seem to serve U.S. interests and preferences on a salient issue in U.S.-PRC relations. Indeed, Ma asserted on his return from Taiping Island that Taiwan and the U.S. held essentially the same views on the overall direction to be taken on the South China Sea. And remarks from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry following a nearly contemporaneous meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recounted talking points that dovetailed with the peace and stability agenda Ma pressed at Taiping Island and in the SCSPI.
Yet, Washington’s take on Ma’s trip was far from positive. A spokesperson for the U.S.’s embassy-equivalent in Taipei branded Ma’s plan to go to Taiping Island “disappoint[ing], “extremely unhelpful,” and “not contribut[ing] to the peaceful resolution of disputes.” A State Department spokesperson similarly criticized the visit as “raising tensions” rather than promoting “de-escalation.” A second feature of the context of Ma’s visit helps to explain this reaction: especially (but not solely) because of its timing, the visit was at odds with U.S. agendas in the region.
Following eight years of stability and improvement in cross-Strait relations under Ma and a more recent and tenuous lull in the confrontations among rival claimants that had roiled the South and East China Seas during the last several years, Washington did not favor acts by Taiwan that might rattle the status quo. Any such move was especially disconcerting when Taiwan was entering its constitutionally and legislatively mandated four-month transition between the January 2016 election and the inauguration of Tsai, whom Beijing openly distrusted on issues touching upon sovereignty and with whom Washington was not (or at least not yet) as comfortable as it had been with Ma. Statements from Tsai that largely paralleled those Ma made in connection with Ma’s Taiping Island visit unsurprisingly did little to assuage Washington’s worries.
More fundamentally, Ma’s Taiping Island expedition was potentially bad news for stability in the wider region because of where it fit in a familiar, and perverse, pattern of interaction between international law and the peculiar circumstances of the South and East China Seas. Under UNLCOS and the international law of the sea that UNCLOS largely embodies, the economically and strategically valuable rights over large maritime zones derive from sovereignty over landforms. That sovereignty, in turn, is an issue for other rules of international law which in most contexts are conducive to international stability, which likely explains those rules’ emergence and acceptance in the first place. But the international law of territorial sovereignty invites tension and risks escalation where disputed territories are small, remote, and inhospitable, yet also important. The rules for sovereignty over territory look primarily to the thick presence of the citizens of a state, effective governance by that state’s authorities, and acceptance (or at least acquiescence) by other states.
Ordinarily, the application of these standards leads to a fairly clear answer to the question of to what state a territory belongs. But, for the minuscule landforms that are in dispute in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, the usual indicia of sovereignty or the exercise of sovereignty are inevitably thin. Resolving conflicting assertions of rights devolves into a difficult comparative inquiry into which among the rival claimants exercises greater dominion or has established a stronger presence where no state does, or can do, very much. These circumstances give each claimant incentives to increase, and exaggerate, its degree of control and, more significantly, for its rivals to be wary of—and to push back against or preempt—any such moves.
Ma’s excursion to Taiping Island was inevitably fraught because it spoke to these legal-political issues. Ma’s visit entailed the highly visible presence of a head of government in the disputed territory. It highlighted the presence of a significant contingent of Taiwanese nationals on the island, their extensive activities, and the ROC government’s exercise of effective authority over the landmass and the people stationed there. The scale of Taiping Island and the human activities thereon was particularly significant for at least two reasons. First, it contrasted with what was occurring—and what was possible—on most of tiny landforms elsewhere in the South China Sea. Beijing seemed to appreciate the importance this point: its massive land reclamation projects that were creating artificial islands larger than Taiping Island with their own airstrips, ship-docking facilities, and buildings to accommodate the state personnel dispatched by the PRC.
Second, Ma’s trip specifically engaged factual issues that were relevant to a key provision in the international law of the sea. Under UNCLOS, the most expansive and valuable maritime rights—to an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf of up to 200 nautical miles—attach only to full-fledged islands (or mainland areas), not to rocks and other lesser landforms. During his visit, Ma made clear that his purposes included continuing Taiwan’s effort to clarify the legal status of Taiping Island as an “island.” As Ma noted, Taiping Island is the largest landform in the disputed South China Sea region. That point is important, but far from decisive. International law does not set clear minimum sizes for an EEZ- and shelf-generating island (although it does make clear that the islands newly built up by China confer no legal rights based on their current size because they are not “naturally formed”).
International law does require that, for a landform to qualify as a zone- and shelf-generating island, it must be capable of sustaining human habitation and an economic life of its own. According to respectable mainstream analyses, a fresh water source and locally produced food are important, perhaps indispensable (although not sufficient), indicia of meeting these criteria. Addressing these legal criteria—in otherwise inexplicable detail—was a central theme of Ma’s visit (as well as a prior visit by senior government officials and experts, related government statements, and a video from the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs). These sources variously made much of Taiping Island’s modest indigenous fresh water resources (which Ma declared comparable to Evian), locally grown—in naturally occurring soil—produce (the specific varieties of which ROC official sources recited), and island-raised livestock (of which Ma and other ROC sources provided a remarkably precise detailed inventory). They also stressed other evidence of robust and durable human habitation such as a temple dedicated to Guanyin, a memorial stele, an airstrip, a hospital, and millions of dollars in recent infrastructure improvements. While on the island (and paralleling other recent official ROC statements), Ma specifically invoked such features as bases for his proffered legal conclusion—quoting the operative standards from UNCLOS—that Taiping is an island. In a shrewd tactical move that intriguingly evoked arguments Taiwanese sources often have made in support of state-like status for Taiwan in the international system, ROC official statements noted that Taiping Island had a stronger claim under many of the relevant criteria than did landforms that other states, including the United States and Japan, relied upon as generating EEZs for their states.
Faced with a Taiwanese presidential trip to Taiping Island that predictably and prominently engaged the legal and factual issues relevant to sovereignty, rival claimant states did not remain silent. Vietnam “resolutely oppose[d]” Ma’s visit and Foreign Ministry representatives denounced the trip for raising tensions in the area, running counter to Taiwan’s pledges to maintain peace and stability in the region, and violating Vietnam’s sovereignty. The Philippines’ foreign affairs spokesman pointedly reminded Taiwan of all parties’ responsibility to refrain from actions that can increase tensions.
For Washington, Ma’s trip, and broader Taiwanese positions on related issues, posed a challenge to a calibrated policy on a complicated issue at a difficult moment. Washington had signaled support for the Philippines pursuing its case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration against the PRC over rights in the South China Sea. The substance of the Philippines’ claim—and Vietnam’s later intervention in the case—dovetailed nicely with the U.S.’s positions. On matters of substance, the Philippines’ case did not (because, as a matter of the tribunal’s jurisdiction it could not) address sovereignty over the landforms—a situation that made it easy for the U.S. to hew to its long-standing position that it did not take sides on questions of sovereignty. Yet, Ma’s visit pointedly raised the issue of sovereignty. The Philippines’ claim rejected China’s 9-dash line (whatever its purported legal basis might be) as insupportably expansive and inconsistent with UNCLOS and the international law of the sea. This, too, aligned nicely with a position that the U.S. was pushing with increasing alacrity, most notably in an exhaustive analysis issued by the State Department, simultaneously with Vietnam’s submission of partly similar views to the tribunal as an interested non-party to the case. Yet, Ma’s presence on Taiping Island was inescapably, if not explicitly, framed by the ROC’s perhaps-evolving but still-persisting insistence on the progenitor of the PRC’s nine-dash line.
On matters of process, the Philippines’ initiation of the claim, the PRC’s refusal to participate even for the limited purpose of contesting jurisdiction, and Beijing’s statement that it would reject any decision by the tribunal gave the U.S. a felicitous means to couple its critique of China’s substantive legal position with a formally neutral—but, in practice, PRC-criticizing—exhortation to all parties to resolve their disputes peacefully through arbitration (or similar means) and call on parties to the arbitration to respect the binding application of international law that the tribunal would reach. But Taiwan openly objected to its exclusion from proceedings that threatened to affect its interests. And the Ma administration’s initial response to the arbitration—later developments in which became the precipitating cause for his jaunt to Taiping Island—was a notably Beijing-like statement that the ROC government would not recognize or accept any decision that might be reached by the arbitration panel which had denied Taiwan an opportunity to participate.
Unlike Taipei’s, Manila’s (and Hanoi’s) views were sufficiently similar to Washington’s that some Chinese sources blamed the U.S. for emboldening, even orchestrating, its rivals’ temerity in challenging China and trying to haul the PRC into international arbitration. In this environment, Washington understandably and predictably would not welcome Ma’s Taiping Island mission. The U.S. had little to gain and something to lose from a Taiwanese presidential expedition that reflected, exposed, and deepened rifts among its friends in the region and that risked shifting the focus toward sovereignty questions and away from the other international legal and political concerns that U.S. policy prefers to emphasize.
Why Now?: The Philippines-China Arbitration and Taiwan’s Interests and Status
Given the difficulties foreseeably created in Taipei’s relations with Washington, the timing of Ma’s visit—a trip he could have made at many other points during his two terms—reflected an assessment that important interests were immediately at stake. A third context—developments in the Philippines-PRC arbitration case—explains why a presidential trip to the island had become urgent for Taiwan.
The relatively immediate backdrop and a key impetus to Ma’s appearance on Taiping Island was an argument that emerged in the course of the protracted arbitration proceedings. Because the tribunal could not decide (under the law of the sea generally) questions of territorial sovereignty or (under the terms of China’s accession to UNCLOS) delimitation of overlapping maritime zones (an issue that arises where two states’ territories lie less than 400 nautical miles apart), Manila had to frame its claim carefully and narrowly. In effect, the Philippines had to argue that even if all of the contested landforms belonged to China, international law of the sea rules would not grant China many of the rights it asserted over maritime zones in the South China Sea near the Philippines. As the arbitration progressed, this general argument by the Philippines took the specific form of claiming that Taiping Island was a mere rock (or, as one statement by the Philippines put it, a “Potemkin island”), and not a true island capable of generating an EEZ and continental shelf that would belong to whatever state had sovereignty over Taiping Island. Facing the prospect of an adverse ruling by an authoritative organ interpreting international legal principles that Taiwan has generally endorsed, Taipei understandably was unwilling to forego a pointed rejection of the Philippines’ assertions concerning the one South China Sea landform that Taiwan controls and that is the most plausible candidate for legal status as an island.
The imperative for Taiwan was stronger still because larger issues about Taiwan’s international status were also implicated. For Ma and Taiwan, the problem was not just that the Philippines was advancing, potentially successfully, in an international legal proceeding a position adverse to Taiwan’s claim of specific legal rights. The further concern was that the arbitration stood as yet another example of Taiwan’s troubling and potentially perilous exclusion from full—or nearly full—participation in the international system. Ma’s appearance on the island was an act of guerrilla lawfare prompted by Taiwan’s lack of opportunity to participate in proceedings that the Philippines had been able to bring, that Vietnam had been able to join as an intervenor, and that the PRC had chosen to snub.
The issues concerning Taiping Island in the Philippines-PRC arbitration and the broader contemporary controversy over the landform provided an important and unusually favorable occasion for Taiwan to pursue its long-standing strategy of pushing back against marginalization and pursuing dignity and state-like stature in the international system. Taiwan could portray its involuntary exclusion as particularly unjust and unfair (and Taiwan thereby could lessen the damage to its carefully nurtured posture as international norm-supporter that could flow from Taipei’s initial rejection of the tribunal’s authority). Taiwan claimed, with evident justification, that it had significant and tangible interests at stake in the arbitration and that Taiwan therefore should have a chance to present its case. Moreover, Taiwan’s enforced absence from the case was itself the product of a more fundamental and similarly problematic barrier to Taiwan’s international participation: the largely Beijing-driven denial of Taiwan’s accession to UNCLOS—the treaty that provides the principal basis for the arbitral panel’s jurisdiction. Further still, Taiwan’s request to put its legal arguments before the arbitrators and the tribunal’s rejection of that request contrasted sharply with Beijing’s refusal to participate even in the jurisdictional phase, and the arbitrators’ informal acceptance of Beijing’s extensive de facto legal brief.
Taiwan’s critique of the arbitration process dovetailed with a broader, and more positive, related agenda that was part of Ma’s Taiping Island visit and the two Peace Initiatives. In those contexts, Taiwan advocated the inclusion of all concerned parties in the mechanisms and measures for pursuing peace, stability, and cooperation in the disputed maritime regions. This entailed a call for acceptance of equal status among Taiwan, the non-Chinese rival claimant states, and the PRC. In the Ma administration’s account, the Peace Initiatives already had provided bases for two successes in Taiwan’s quest for more equal, state-like status. Taiwan had reached a relatively comprehensive fisheries agreement with Japan in 2013 and a more limited fishing-related law-enforcement accord with the Philippines in 2015. To be sure, such pacts are not limited to treaties among sovereign states, but the usual parties are states, and the capacity to undertake such arrangements indicates a significant level of international stature (or what international lawyers call “international legal personality”).
The Peace Initiatives asserted the ROC’s international legal status in another, more esoteric way as well. The historical and legal arguments that they deployed in support of claims to sovereignty over the disputed landforms invoked the San Francisco Peace Treaty and the Treaty of Taipei (between the ROC and Japan)—both of which came after 1949 and are not relied upon by Beijing for its claims of sovereignty because the treaties can have legal significance for Taiwan or China only if the ROC government continued to exercise the international authority associated with the government of a state well after the ROC regime’s ouster from the Mainland.
Finally, Taiwan’s quest for international status is also evident in many of the less formal, more normative and behavioral contrasts between Taiwan and the Mainland that Ma’s sojourn on Taiping Island, the two Ma-era Peace Initiatives, and other official Taiwan statements sought to draw. Their emphasis on Taiwan’s uses of Taiping Island and proposed uses of the disputed areas more generally—assuring environmental protection, undertaking scientific research, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, actively fulfilling international obligations, and pursuing peace and cooperation—spoke to non-traditional criteria and soft power-like factors that have become increasingly important for the stature of states and near-states in the international order, especially in the post-Cold War era.
There was, thus, much more to Ma’s one-day trip to a .5 square kilometer landform in the South China Sea than initially meets the eye. With so much at stake and with such complex connections to issues in cross-Strait relations, U.S. policy toward a potentially volatile region, and Taiwan’s existential concerns about its place in the international system, Taiwan’s outgoing president had weighty reasons to make the journey, and all sides had ample reason to expect the trip to be controversial and contentious—or to make it so.