It might come as a surprise that a member of the pan-blue camp would congratulate President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), but the media is reporting that her government plans to turn Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) into a base for humanitarian aid and international shipping, as well as a scientific research station.
The Coast Guard Administration has earmarked nearly NT$1.65 billion (US$54.28 million) for the next fiscal year for the “Taiping Island harbor dredging and wharf remodeling project,” which is expected to be completed in 2023.
It also said it would hold extensive discussions with international consultants and implement increased risk management during preliminary planning, and promised to complete the project on time, within budget and to a high standard.
The Legislative Yuan’s budget report for this fiscal year says that the situation on the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) — Itu Aba is the largest natural island in the chain — has grown volatile over the past few years, and this has increased the risk to international shipping.
However, pressure from claimant nations and other interested parties, as well as concern that construction on the island could trigger unintended consequences, had previously kicked the redevelopment of Itu Aba into the long grass.
The coast guard is right to consult with experts and focus on risk management, but completing its new 1,000-tonne and 4,000-tonne-class patrol vessels — whose construction the agency oversees — must coincide with the start of construction on the island.
The government needs to handle Itu Aba with kid gloves. Given its location, the island has the potential to cause a “butterfly effect,” whereby a seemingly inconsequential action sets off a high-impact event in an unrelated domain. An incident involving Itu Aba could easily trigger a national security crisis.
Itu Aba is vital, as 90 percent of Taiwan’s energy supply is shipped through the waters surrounding the Spratlys. Furthermore, the nation maintains substantial fishing rights within the exclusive economic zone that surrounds the island, while beneath the seabed, there are believed to be rich reserves of energy resources, including clathrate hydrates and hydrocarbons.
As a result, maintaining control over the island is essential for sustaining economic growth and safeguarding national security. The island is also crucial for ensuring the survival of the nation as a sovereign entity.
Given Itu Aba’s strategic importance, the government’s plans for the island are more than just symbolic: The project is vital to the national interest.
Claimant nations are continually engaging in actions, both overt and covert, to gain control of the waters surrounding the Spratlys, taking small steps here and there with their militaries, which are designed to stealthily and gradually chip away at Taiwan’s control of the chain.
The government has mistakenly adopted a “silence is golden” strategy in the belief that this will buy Taiwan more time. This is why it is such welcome news that the coast guard plans to engage international consultants on the Itu Aba project.
At this crucial moment, when the settled international order is going through a period of flux, remaining passive over a matter of such clear geostrategic importance would be the worst thing that Tsai’s administration could do.
If the government is truly capable of delivering the project on time, on budget and without sacrificing quality, no one will be cheering for Tsai more loudly than this member of the pan-blue camp.
Hu Wen-chi is a former vice chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Culture and Communications Committee.
Translated by Edward Jones
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