Mon, Nov 12, 2018 - Page 6 News List

John J. Tkacik On Taiwan: Is Washington watching Pratas Island’s economic zone?

Last week in the Taipei Times (“Stars and Stripes over Pratas Island,” Nov. 5, page 8), I mulled an historical footnote about a small US Navy force in World War II that once captured Pratas Island (東沙島, now administered by Taipei) and claimed it as “American territory.” For readers unfamiliar with Taiwan’s idyllic south sea atolls, Pratas Island is a 1.6km-long jade-green isle with a working lagoon harbor set, jewel-like, into Pratas’ 24km-wide circular atoll, equidistant from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Luzon whence it commands the deep blue waters of the South China Sea’s northern approaches. A Taiwanese coast guard base on the island is quite modern and can be busy.

So, although Pratas is little known, it is neither an isolated nor inconsequential territory. Indeed, China declares that Pratas is its sovereign territory, a laughable assertion of even more questionable validity than any hypothetical American claim (given the phrasing of the peace treaties that ended the Pacific War and the US’ role as both primary victorious power and the sole occupying power of defeated Japan). But set that aside.

About 13 years ago, in 2005, Chinese “survey ships” began to plow Pratas’ waters in utter disregard of Taiwan’s coast guard cutters assigned to protect the wide atoll’s fisheries and marine environment. By contrast, the Chinese ships were bent on destroying Pratas’ marine habitat. They instead supported oil exploration operations and gave cover to Chinese fishing boats which trawled the coral reefs rich in exotic seafood delicacies to fill the infinite stewpots of China. In February 2005, Taiwan’s coast guardsmen expelled several Chinese fishermen on Pratas’ reefs who attempted to erect a permanent facility. In retaliation, up to 200 Chinese fishing boats blockaded Pratas’ lagoon harbor, demanding rights to land, build camps, and populate Pratas during bad weather.

Taipei’s quasi-diplomatic Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) sent many texts and faxes to its Beijing counterpart, all unanswered. The confrontation with People’s Republic of China (PRC) fishing boats was followed up in April-May by a series of incursions by two Chinese “research” ships each escorted by an invasion fleet of PRC fishing vessels. On May 27, 2005, a Taiwan coast guard cutter blocked and attempted to board one, but it withdrew rather than allow the Taiwanese to seize it. Still, the incident caused alarm among then-president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) security advisors.

Of course, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) was well aware of the incidents, but remained aloof until June 4, when Chen’s national security advisors asked the US for assistance. Just a few days before, a Chinese navy Ming (明)-class submarine suffered a mysterious breakdown near Pratas; again nerves were on edge in Taipei. The top American in Taipei at the time, Mr. Douglas Paal, did not want to get involved. He viewed Taipei’s cry for help merely as part of an inter-agency power-play among the coast guard, the Presidential Office, the Mainland Affairs Council and the defense ministry. He advised Washington to pay little attention. But Taipei made a compelling case: China was employing aggressive, but non-violent, measures to gradually push Taiwan personnel off the island to allow the Chinese military to use the island as a base.

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