In the middle of last month, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) held a fleet review in the South China Sea, with the aircraft carrier Liaoning as the centerpiece and 48 warships and 76 warplanes taking part. Twelve days later, the US dispatched two B-52 strategic bombers, part of its “continuous bomber presence” deterrent in the Western Pacific, to fly over the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, maneuvering less than 250km off the coast of China’s Guangdong Province.
The South China Sea is without a doubt on an irreversible course of militarization. Taiwan, which borders the South China Sea and is one of the nations that claim sovereignty over various parts of it, needs to apply wisdom to survive while these two superpowers are clashing.
US-based business news network CNBC on May 3 reported that the PLAN had deployed YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles, which have a range of 546km, and HQ-9B long-range surface-to-air missiles, with a range of nearly 300km, on three reefs in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島): Subi Reef (Jhubi Reef, 渚碧礁), Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁) and Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島).
These missile deployments are clearly directed at the “freedom of navigation operations” that the US Navy and US Air Force have conducted several times, as well as the US’ “continuous bomber presence” in the region. They also pose a threat to neighboring nations.
Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), the largest of the Spratlys, is controlled by Taiwan, whose Coast Guard Administration (CGA) has personnel stationed there. Itu Aba is about midway between the three reefs where China installed the missiles — 67km from Subi Reef, 135km from Mischief Reef and 185km Fiery Cross Reef — so that it is surrounded by Chinese YJ-12B and HQ-9B missiles.
However, after visiting Itu Aba, the Ministry of National Defense chose to add a number of M114 155mm howitzers to enhance the island’s defenses. The howitzers, which Taiwan received as military aid from the US after the Korean War, have a range of less than 15km.
The ministry’s intelligence analysis and scenario design seems to have only considered Vietnam, whose closest occupied islands stand at Itu Aba’s doorstep, while overlooking any threat from China, which stands a bit further away, but would love to get its hands on Itu Aba.
The Bashi Channel, where Taiwan and the Philippines have overlapping claims to an exclusive economic zone, is another thing to worry about in connection with the South China Sea. The Philippines last month started building a marine affairs base on Mavulis Island — called Yami Island by Taiwan — the northernmost of the Batanes Islands. Mavulis lies 98km south of Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼).
Although construction of the base is in line with Philippine sovereignty, it indicates that the Philippines plans stricter and tougher enforcement of its marine territory that overlaps that of Taiwan.
A Philippine Coast Guard vessel in 2013 opened fire on Taiwanese fishing boat Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28, killing the captain’s father, Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成). Following that incident, the Republic of China Navy sent a group of warships consisting of the Keelung-class destroyer Ma Kung and Kang Ding-class frigates Kang Ting and Cheng Te across the “temporary enforcement line” between Taiwan and the Philippines in a “joint fisheries protection exercise” to support CGA vessels in their fisheries protection duties.
Five years have passed since then, but the main elements of the navy’s combat force have remained at a standstill while the Philippines in September 2016 ordered two South Korean HDF-3000 fisheries protection frigates, which are to be handed over at the end of next year.
The frigates’ detection and combat systems will be an advance over the Hamilton-class patrol vessels that the Philippines received as US military aid. When that happens, the Philippines’ anti-aircraft and sea-control capabilities will be on a par with those of Taiwan’s mainstay warships — its Cheng Kung, Kang Ding and Chi Yang-class frigates.
The navy’s fleet-building mindset has been based on the assumption that light and fast-moving vessels equipped with supersonic Hsiung Feng III anti-ship missiles are invincible, but in reality the vessels have weak anti-aircraft defenses and limited operating range, while the missiles cannot be reloaded.
These weaknesses have caused the navy to get bogged down in the erroneous strategy of a defensive “fortress fleet” that cannot venture far from Taiwan’s coast.
Meanwhile, China’s Z-19E Black Whirlwind light attack helicopter and Z-9D shipborne helicopter were exhibited last month at the PLAN’s fleet review in the South China Sea, and they on April 18 took part in live-fire drills in Fujian Province’s Quanzhou Bay, where they showed their ability to attack fast-moving vessels.
This proves that Taiwan’s Chin Chiang-class patrol boats, Tuo Chiang-class corvettes, Kuang Hua VI fast attack missile boats and planned stealth mini missile assault boats can no longer play an effective role in asymmetric warfare, still less rush to the aid of Itu Aba or protect fishing vessels in overlapping sea zones.
This concept of operations does not recognize the enemy’s true capabilities, but the top leaders of Taiwan’s armed forces are still determined to prove its worth in this year’s Han Kuang military exercises, which are to take place next month.
It is similar to the decision announced last year to provide armed forces personnel with new-style “Eisenhower jacket” uniforms.
In both cases, officers and bureaucrats have backed each other up and will not admit to the error of policies that put personal preferences above professional expertise.
As well as wasting taxpayers’ money, the current approach will delay the development of Taiwan’s armed forces and impair their combat readiness.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the Republic of China Naval Academy and former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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