In April, China and the Philippines had a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島), which is located 124 nautical miles (229.6km) from the Philippine island of Luzon. Tensions escalated until China announced an official fishing moratorium in the middle of last month, temporarily averting a crisis.
The situation in the South China Sea is notoriously precarious and it would be a stretch to suggest that peace had returned to the region. Earlier this month 940th Squadron of the Vietnamese air force’s 372nd Division flew a reconnaissance mission off the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島). The action was the first of its kind and the aircraft flew from Phu Cat military air base in what was a forceful declaration of Hanoi’s sovereign interests.
An article in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 2, 2010 by Xue Litai (薛理泰), a research associate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, discussed the possibility of Vietnamese forces invading Taiping Island (太平島), the largest of the Spratlys. The article caused a heated debate between academics in China and Taiwan. While this is unlikely to happen, it demonstrates the very real nature of the risks that exist.
According to press reports last month, Vietnamese forces approached Taiping Island twice: On March 22, a Taiping Island patrol radar picket registered an object to the south of Jhongjhou reef (中洲礁), within 6km of the island’s restricted waters. It was identified as an armored vessel flying a Vietnamese flag; four days later, two large boats were observed only 4km from the island. This news was never officially explained and the low-key response speaks volumes.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei issued five press releases addressing the South China Sea dispute between July 2010 and June 10 last year in which it called on all parties in the dispute to resolve any conflicts peaceably by setting aside conflicts in the spirit of cooperation. The same sentiments were repeated by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) during an international press conference after his recent inauguration.
All this is mere lip service to high ideals and it will not do Taiwan any good should it become embroiled in a crisis in the disputed body of water.
Another case occurred on May 18. At 9:40am, five Chinese fishing vessels were intercepted by three Vietnamese gunboats about 50 nautical miles inside the “U-shaped” demarcation zone. One of the boats sent an SOS, which was received by China’s Yuzheng 310 patrol vessel 140 nautical miles away. The Yuzheng 310 rushed to support the fishing vessels. At 1pm the three Vietnamese gunboats changed course and returned to base, deterred by the Chinese enforcement vessel’s approach.
How would our own government have responded had it been Taiwanese fishing vessels involved and how would it, or the Taiwanese navy, have reacted had the Chinese responded so proactively?
There is a rare cross-party consensus in the legislature on the wisdom of again stationing troops on the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) and the Spratlys. However, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) said the American Institute in Taiwan has indicated the US is opposed to a Taiwanese plan to deploy defense systems on Taiping Island.
That said, it is difficult to see what Taiwanese interests in the region have to do with the US.