Disputes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which are called the Nansha (南沙) Islands in China and Taiwan, have heated up in the past year or two. Rather than being confined to countries who have traditionally contested ownership of the islands, the issue has also become a test of strength between the US and China. The US has no territorial claim over these islands and shoals, but what happens in the South China Sea affects its freedom of action in the region.
Ever since the end of World War II, the US has seen the South China Sea as part of its sphere of influence. The longstanding weakness of China’s navy reinforced this aspect of US strategic thinking, but now, as China’s economic power continues to grow, its navy has become active in areas extending beyond its own coastal waters and into adjacent seas. This is starting to pose a challenge to the US’ strategic interests in the South China Sea.
Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which have disputes with China over the islands, have sought to challenge China by occasionally expressing their support for US intervention in territorial disputes or by signaling their desire to gain US backing and align themselves with the US to stand up to China. Disputes over islands in the South China Sea today are not just about territorial claims. They are also a contest between China and the US over their respective spheres of influence.
The question of whether the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should cooperate on issues to do with the South China Sea has therefore again arisen. Considering the environment in which Taiwan currently finds itself, can it cooperate with China on South China Sea issues? What would be the impact on Taiwan of such cooperation? These topics merit further thought and discussion.
Ever since its 1988 armed clash with Vietnam over the Johnson (Chigua) Reef (赤瓜礁) in the Spratly archipelago, China has often talked about the possibility of cross-strait cooperation regarding the South China Sea. Why is China so keen to work with Taiwan on this issue? There are several reasons.
First, the seven “islands” that China occupies in the Spratly archipelago are just tiny reefs, on some of which it has erected buildings. Furthermore, these reefs are far from the Chinese mainland and also a long way from the Paracel Islands (西沙), where China has a more substantial military presence. If a war were to break out in the Spratly archipelago, it would be hard for China to dispatch its forces quickly. If China could get access to Taiping Island (太平), which is controlled by Taiwan, it would be of great value for China’s logistical needs — especially considering that Taiwan maintains an airstrip on the island.
Second, some years ago, when relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait were quite hostile, China wanted to use cooperation in the South China Sea as a way of making a breakthrough in cross-strait relations.
Third, considering the close relations between Taiwan and the US, China would like to create divisions between the two and separate Taiwan from the US’ sphere of influence in the region.
Fourth, China might get into conflict with Southeast Asian countries over territory in the South China Sea. If Taiwan worked with Southeast Asian countries, it would put China under even greater pressure. If, on the other hand, China could draw Taiwan over to its side, then Beijing would be in a stronger position with regard to South China Sea issues.