Taiwan's Maritime Linkages with Southeast Asia

By Ting-Hui Lin
January 24, 2018

This brief explains how the Tsai government’s maritime claims are different from China’s and will create a positive atmosphere to promote the New Southbound Policy. From controlling maritime risks to improving the treatment of fishery workers and encouraging greater collaboration within the fishing industry, Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries can take a range of actions to enhance their relations to achieve mutual benefits. This brief is part of the series “Re-examining Critical Links between Taiwan and Southeast Asia: The New Southbound Policy in the Tsai Era.”

Taiwan has long-standing and close relations with Southeast Asian countries. In May 2016, the government of President Tsai Ing-wen introduced a string of measures known as the New Southbound Policy in order to promote greater cooperation between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. This came amid an arbitration case that the Philippines had brought against China over issues in the South China Sea. After the arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the case on July 12, 2016, did not support Taiwan’s right to claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around Taiping Island, the Tsai government stated that “the Republic of China (ROC) government does not accept any decisions that undermine the rights of the ROC, and declares that they have no legally binding force on the ROC.” The beginning of this statement reads, “The tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has rendered its award in the arbitration brought by the Philippines under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” This means that the Tsai government does not deny the legitimacy or value of the arbitral tribunal based on UNCLOS.

Although Taiwan is not a contracting party to UNCLOS, the government reiterated one week later, on July 19, that it claims its rights in the South China Sea based on international law and UNCLOS and that disputes are to be resolved accordingly. An in-depth discussion of the Tsai government’s stance on the South China Sea will make it possible to understand how the maritime disputes that crop up as Taiwan promotes its New Southbound Policy could foster relations between Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries. This brief explains how the Tsai government’s maritime claims are different from China’s and will create a positive atmosphere to promote the New Southbound Policy. From controlling maritime risks to improving the treatment of fishery workers and encouraging greater collaboration within the fishing industry, Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries can take a range of actions to enhance their relations to achieve mutual benefits.

Taiwan’s Maritime Claims Differ from China’s

Although Taiwan still stakes territorial claims to features in the South China Sea, it has begun to gradually set itself apart from China in asserting its maritime rights. While China has not yet declared that it will renounce its claim to historic rights in the South China Sea, Tsai’s reference to UNCLOS means that Taiwan has shifted to adopting the South China Sea islands and their relevant waters based on international law instead of claiming historic rights. Based on UNCLOS, the relevant waters are the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone, and the continental shelf of an island determined in accordance with the provisions of UNCLOS applicable to other land territory, not claimed historic rights in the whole South China Sea. Article 4 of the ROC constitution, which took effect on December 25, 1947, states that “the territory of the Republic of China according to its existing national boundaries shall not be altered except by resolution of the National Assembly.”[1] According to the constitution, beyond the territorial sea are high seas based on the intertemporal law. Thus, if Taiwan wants to claim an EEZ in these waters, its position should be based on UNCLOS rather than the ROC constitution when China insists that its rights are based on historical discourses.

Moreover, Beijing and Taipei also take a different approach toward administering the Spratly Islands. Just as the international community called into question China’s land reclamation activities on seven reefs in the island chain, the Tsai administration declared that it wants to turn Taiping Island into a humanitarian relief location and hub for scientific research and manage the Spratly Islands based on universal values, thus preserving room for cooperation with other countries. This statement reinforces the differences between Taiwan and China on the South China Sea disputes and creates a positive atmosphere for cooperation on the New Southbound Policy with countries in Southeast Asia.

Using Bilateral Mechanisms to Control Maritime Risks

In May 2013, the Taiwanese fishing boat, Guang Da Xing No. 28, operated in the overlapping EEZs of Taiwan and the Philippines. The Philippine Coast Guard wanted to arrest the fishing boat due to illegal fishing in the Philippines’ EEZ, but fishermen insisted they were operating in Taiwan’s EEZ. During the altercation, one fisherman of Guang Da Xing No. 28 was shot to death by the Philippine Coast Guard vessel.[2] Taiwan’s government adopted some punitive measures, such as a complete ban on the migration of Filipino labor into Taiwan, to force the Philippines to apologize for this incident, and then the fishery talks began. Finally, the incident led to the signing of the bilateral Agreement Concerning the Facilitation of Cooperation on Law Enforcement in Fisheries Matters and, pursuant to the agreement, the establishment of a bilateral technical working group that meets once a year. While it is impossible for Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries to completely avoid fishery disputes,[3] the bilateral law-enforcement agreement provides guidelines for preventing the escalation of disputes.

In addition to the bilateral agreement, talks held by the working group facilitate communication. When necessary, it can become a hotline and a mechanism for controlling maritime risks. Although Taiwan does not have diplomatic relations with Southeast Asian countries and cannot participate in the multilateral negotiation mechanisms for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, a bilateral mechanism to control maritime risks could be established between Taiwan and these countries—modeled after the approach between Taiwan and the Philippines—to make up for this inability to participate in multilateral mechanisms.

Measures to Improve the Treatment of Southeast Asian Fishery Workers

Since the number of young Taiwanese who work in the inshore and offshore fishing industries continues to decline, recruiting fishery workers from Southeast Asia to work on fishing boats has become the best choice for vessel owners. Taiwan Fisheries Agency statistics show that Taiwan has hired more than 20,000 Southeast Asian fishermen (hailing mainly from Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines).[4] In recent years, the violation of human rights, poor working conditions, and low remuneration of these migrant workers have drawn concern from both the government and nongovernmental groups.

On January 20, 2017, the Act for Distant Water Fisheries came into force authorizing the Taiwan Fisheries Agency to establish rules managing local brokers and map out measures to protect the welfare and rights of foreign fishery workers employed on fishing boats.[5] One of the provisions of the act requires that local brokers submit contracts with foreign brokers and contracts between foreign brokers and foreign workers to be hired by Taiwan’s employers to the Taiwan authorities. The new law is expected to substantively increase the protection afforded foreign fishery workers by weeding out “unreasonable” clauses in such contracts. The New Southbound Policy aims to put “people” first, and this people-centered approach will become an important yardstick for monitoring how well Taiwan safeguards human rights.

Possibilities for Collaboration in the Fishing Industry on Common Challenges

Possessing well-developed aquaculture and marine industry technology, Taiwan has become a sought-after counterpart for Southeast Asian countries. Due to a marked increase in demand for fishery resources from South China Sea rim nations, these waters face a shortage of resources. Statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations show that the South China Sea is already overfished annually. In 2014, the region’s major fishing nations were China (17.1 million metric tons of fish, crustaceans, and mollusks), Indonesia (6.4 million metric tons), Vietnam (2.9 million metric tons), the Philippines (2.4 million metric tons), and Malaysia (1.5 million metric tons), followed by Taiwan (1 million metric tons) and Brunei (3,100 metric tons).[6] Given that Taiwan can provide sources of protein from its aquaculture farms in the southern part of the island (e.g., fish, prawns, and crab), it could assist Southeast Asian countries with aquaculture investment and technology transfer to reduce the destruction of the marine environment in the South China Sea by all claimants and to protect the sustainable development of the ecosystem. When it comes to maritime linkages, Taiwan and Southeast Asia should be in a win-win situation and not locked in vicious competition.

In addition, based on its people-first approach, the New Southbound Policy presents the opportunity for Taiwan’s government and people to show their appreciation for Southeast Asian countries, reversing the negative approach to those countries from years past, especially on maritime issues. Taiwan’s investors have often been accused of destroying the environment. For example, in April 2016, at least 70 tons of dead fish washed ashore in Vietnam. In July 2016, the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, a subsidiary of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Group, admitted responsibility for the release of chemicals in wastewater during a test run of the plant.[7] According to the Vietnam Ministry of Labor, more than 40,000 workers in Vietnam who rely on fishing and tourism were directly affected, and a quarter of a million people nationwide felt the repercussions of the toxic spill. Vietnam’s state-run media initially pointed the finger of blame at Formosa’s steel plant in central Ha Tinh Province. Taiwan’s lawmakers also urged the Tsai government to investigate the company’s possible role in the mass fish deaths in Vietnam.[8] The lessons from this case are reflected in the New Southbound Policy, which takes into account the rights and needs of local people. Under the initiative, Taiwan and Southeast Asian governments would work together to protect the environment and exchange information to fight unscrupulous businesses. While past damage cannot be undone, Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries can cooperate on recovering the marine ecosystems.


On maritime issues, Taiwan has a complementary and mutually supportive relationship with Southeast Asian nations, be it regarding claims to maritime interests, law enforcement at sea, the maritime workforce, or collaboration in the fishing industry. Although Taiwan does not have diplomatic relations with these countries and often faces political obstruction from China, it still tries to engage with them and transform maritime risks into opportunities. For example, given that the Indonesian minister of maritime affairs and fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti had Chinese fishing boats blown up and sunk in 2017 as a warning to Chinese fishermen against illegal fishing in Indonesia’s EEZ, Taiwan’s fishing boats try their best not to violate Indonesia’s rights, and the Tsai government urged them to install a vessel monitoring system to provide both national and international bodies with essential information for ensuring resource management. In the past, many Indonesian workers have helped Taiwan’s fishing companies make money. Taiwan should live up to its regional responsibilities by improving the human rights of all Southeast Asian workers in its fishing industry and protecting the ecosystem of the South China Sea.


[1] The main text of the constitution of the Republic of China (Taiwan) is available at http://english.president.gov.tw/Page/94.

[2] “Incident Regarding Fishing Boat Guang Da Xing No. 28 and Its Fisherman Was Shot to Death by Philippine Coast Guard Vessel,” Ministry of Justice (Taiwan), Ministry of Justice News, May 19, 2013, https://www.mjac.moj.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=306187&ctNode=35562&mp=801.

[3] On May 7, 2016, Vietnamese fishing vessels operated in waters east and northeast of the Pratas Islands at a latitude of roughly 21 degrees north and a longitude of about 119 degrees east. Taiwan’s fishermen want the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration to make the South China Sea the priority area for protection. See “Vietnamese Fishing Boats Accused of Encroaching in Taiwan Waters,” Central News Agency, May 9, 2016, available at https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/2920681.

[4] Matthew Strong, “Taiwan Wants More Workers and Migrants from New Southbound Policy Countries,” Taiwan News, November 10, 2017, https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3294552.

[5] The full text of the Act for Distant Water Fisheries is available at https://www.fa.gov.tw/en/LegalsActs/content.aspx?id=5&chk=ba23e604-1d7f-40fd-8a8b-8d125f16001d&param=.

[6] Jake Maxwell Watts, “South China Sea Court Ruling Puts Fish Rivalry into Spotlight,” Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/south-china-sea-court-ruling-puts-fish-rivalry-into-spotlight-1468901221.

[7] “Vietnam Blames Toxic Waste Water from Steel Plant for Mass Fish Deaths,” Associated Press, July 1, 2016, available from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/01/vietnam-blames-toxic-waste-water-fom-steel-plant-for-mass-fish-deaths.

[8] “Taiwan Lawmakers Urge Formosa Probe over Vietnam Fish Deaths,” Channel NewsAsia, June16, 2016, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/taiwan-lawmakers-urge-formosa-probe-over-vietnam-fish-deaths-7962752.

Ting-Hui Lin is the Deputy Secretary General of the Taiwan Society of International Law.