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China threatens peace in the South China Sea

China threatens peace in the South China Sea

Minister of National Defense Kao Kuang-chi told legislators Monday that Beijing has never abandoned its threat to use force to achieve its goal of taking back Taiwan. Meanwhile China’s spending on national defense continues to grow yearly, he said, even as the national economy shows signs of a slowdown.

Reporting on developments in cross-strait affairs, Kao noted that China continues to modernize its military and reinforce its combat capability against Taiwan by improving its military command structure, replacing outdated equipment and stepping up training for its armed forces.

At the same time, the PLA Air Force and Navy have begun staging air and sea drills in the western Pacific to familiarize their forces with the movements required by anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies in the region.

All of this is evidence that Beijing has not given up the thought of unification through force, said Kao.

Meanwhile Taiwan has been beefing up the infrastructure and forces on its sole holding in the South China Sea, Itu Aba or Taiping Island, located lies some 1600km south Kaohsiung. Originally the largest island in the area, Taiping Island also offers a limited supply of potable water, a great asset in case of a protracted conflict.

Taiwan has about 600 persons on Taiping Island, mostly Coast Guard personnel and a few technicians handling weather observation and other duties. The Coast Guard complement replaced a detachment of marines in 2000, but recently political figures such as KMT Legislator Lin Yu-fang have called for the government to re-deploy the marines as part of an effort to shore up the island’s defensive capabilities.

Taiwan has steadily enlarged the island, which is now about 2000m long overall. It is also constructing a pier capable of berthing ships up to 3000 tons. That particular project aroused controversy when a Chinese heavy lifting vessel was hired to haul caissons from southern Taiwan to the island as no other ship was available to transport the concrete structures during a window afforded by weather conditions. Although the Chinese ship was shadowed by several ROC naval vessels along the way, it can now be assumed that China is familiar with approaches to the port area of Taiping Island as well as the current status of the harbor there.

China was quite happy to have one of its state-run shipping and construction companies handle the contract to transport the caissons to Taiping Island. After all, Beijing assumes the island will fall into its hands should it ever take control of Taiwan, which it has repeatedly vowed to do if Taipei declares independence. Were a serious conflict were to break out in the Spratlys, military analysts believe China would act to protect Taiping Island as its own territory because of its strategic value.

Meanwhile Lin Yu-fang is spearheading efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s presence on Taiping Island, with calls to follow up construction of the pier by lengthening the runway on the island. At present the runway is capable of handling C-130H transports carrying limited amounts of cargo. It is not long enough, however, to accommodate P-3C anti-submarine aircraft. Lin and others are pressing for an extension of the runway that would allow such military aircraft to be stationed on the island on a long-term basis.

All of this is taking place against a backdrop of build-ups throughout the South China Sea by a half dozen players, with China playing the biggest role. In the Spratlys, China now controls at least seven shoals and islands, with the largest, Fiery Cross Reef, at least three times larger than Taiping Island after enlargement through landfills. At the end of January China initiated other large-scale land reclamation projects on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef in the area.

Vietnam has reportedly increased its artillery complements on Sandy Cay and Namyit Island, only 11km and 22km from Taiping Island. It is also reclaiming land on Sin Cowe Island some 45 km away and is reportedly readying plans for piers capable of berthing large ships.

The Philippines also maintains a presence in the Spratlys in the form of the rusty BRP Sierra Madre, a World War Two landing craft beached on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 after China occupied nearby Mischief Reef. The Philippines claims the shoal as part of its continental shelf but has failed to impress Beijing, which asked the Philippines to remove the grounded ship last year.

Taiwan’s claim to Taiping Island harks back to 1946 when the ROC government sent naval vessels to the South China Sea after Japan withdrew at the end of World War Two. Late in 1947 the ROC announced a roughly-drawn “nine-dash line” that included most of the South China Sea, claiming the area as historically a part of China. When Chiang Kai-shek removed the ROC government to Taiwan, the CCP adopted the nine-dash line, even adding a tenth dash in 2013 – with the new segment falling not in the South China Sea, but east of Taiwan.

Former Deputy Minister of National Defense Ko Cheng-heng once told a Voice of America interviewer the DPP was mulling the advisability of abandoning Taiwan's claim to the nine-dash line. Lin Yu-fang strongly opposes such a move, saying a nation should not willingly give up its claim on such a large territory without being forced to do so militarily.

Others have suggested Taipei dial back its advocacy of the nine-dash line. In September 2014 former AIT Director William Stanton told a symposium on Asia-Pacific regional security the nine-dash line is “neither reasonable nor consistent with norms of international law.” A spokesman for AIT quickly explained Stanton’s comments were strictly his own personal opinion and not the view of the US government.

What does Taiwan gain by holding on to its far-flung outpost in the South China Sea? The island’s value is purely symbolic, tied directly to the nine-dash line. One result of Taiwan’s insistence on retaining the island is a lingering suspicion on the part of other nations in the South China Sea region that Taiwan tacitly supports China’s claims in the area.

In addition, the isolated location and small size of Taiping Island mean that the garrison on the island would serve as little more than a “canary in the mine” if serious hostilities were to break out in the area.

Taiwan has put out feelers in the form of peace initiatives for the East China Sea as well as the South China Sea, calling for shelving disputes and working toward peaceful coexistence through joined exploration and exploitation of resources in the region.

That carries little weight with China. As Paul Haenle of the Carnegie Tsinghua Center in Beijing puts it, “Chinese leaders believe strongly that as a rising great power they should have a sphere of influence in Asia, much like the US has maintained in the western hemisphere since its 19th-century articulation of the Monroe Doctrine.”

For Taiwan and the other nations surrounding the South China Sea, that leaves little choice but to stand by and watch as China continues to build up its military might and brazenly takes steps toward exploiting the gas and mineral deposits said to lie under the 1.4 million square miles of the sea.

Updated : 2021-09-26 15:04 GMT+08:00