The same problem is happening in the South China Sea, where Taiwan pledges to safeguard the Spratly Islands because they an important international sea lane, with a high strategic value. In fact, the sea lies at the doorstep of Vietnam and the Philippines, and strategically it is only natural that they would fight for them. Although they are far away, China, as a strong power, of course seeks to control the region.
Taiwan is a small country about 1,600 nautical miles away from Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) and it is unlikely to develop any long-range military projection capabilities.
Although it controls all the Spratlys, it will not be able to gain any strategic control over traffic, so its insistence on participating in the power struggle is not very pragmatic.
Itu Aba Island is easy to attack and hard to defend, so geostrategically it is more of a liability for the nation than an asset.
Still, if the island were abandoned, the government would certainly be accused of humiliating the nation and forfeiting its sovereignty. It therefore has no choice but to continue to maintain possession of the islands, although it should not adopt the thinking of a strong power and aim to participate in the struggle to gain control of strategic international sea lanes.
Nor should it greatly expand facilities on Itu Aba, as some strategists have strongly suggested, or station more troops there and develop long-range projection capabilities covering the entire region.
On the contrary, Taiwan should adopt a stance suitable for a small county and keep control over the island while turning it into a “buffer zone” for the countries that compete for control of the South China Sea. That would allow it to make a greater contribution to regional balance and peace.
Being a small country can be problematic, but it often also has its advantages. If Taiwan behaves arrogantly and makes itself out to be a major power, that would definitely be unfortunate.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Eddy Chang