As tensions rise in the South China Sea, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) plans to send additional troops to reinforce the nation’s sole foothold in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), government officials said yesterday, adding that short-range anti-aircraft missiles could be positioned on the island for the first time.
Anonymous senior sources said the deputy commander of military forces on Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) would be promoted from lieutenant colonel to colonel following the arrival of the reinforcements, including “an appropriate increase in deployed firepower.”
The sources declined to say whether the additional platoon would include anti-aircraft personnel.
Photo courtesy of a group of reporters visiting Itu Aba Island
In response to questioning on Friday, the Coast Guard Administration, which is responsible for managing the island, confirmed plans to send new troops — including troops with artillery training.
It also confirmed plans to promote the island’s deputy commander to colonel.
The troop increases were spurred by the increasing strategic importance of Itu Aba because of “treacherous” tensions in surrounding seas, along with the completion of a pier, it said.
A senior government official familiar with the nation’s South China Sea policy said that Itu Aba Island and the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) were previously managed by the Marine Corps, with the Pratas Islands hosting a battalion of about 500, while Itu Aba hosts a reinforced company of between 140 and 150 soldiers.
After management of the islands was transferred to the administration, Itu Aba Island’s troop strength was maintained, even as the troops guarding the Pratas Islands were pared down to two reinforced companies, the official said.
However, the nation’s ability to enforce its sovereignty claims has been threatened as the Philippines, Vietnam and China have increased troop strength and firepower on the South China Sea islands they occupy, the official said, adding that Taiwan could lose ground if it fails to send reinforcements.
“All of the personnel will be directly transferred from the Pratas Islands,” the official said, adding that all of them have passed artillery training because of the need for additional firepower on the islands.
While mortars and anti-aircraft guns constitute Itu Aba’s main military equipment, it still lacks short-range anti-aircraft missiles to fend off an aerial assault, the official said, adding that the government would consider whether to add short-range anti-aircraft missiles as part of an overall review of the island’s defenses.
News of the government’s plans drew mixed reactions from members of the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, with pan-green legislators criticizing Ma over making sensitive changes instead of leaving decisions to the incoming administration of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who is to be inaugurated on May 20.
DPP Legislator Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政) said that because the Ma administration has only three weeks before leaving office, any military or diplomatic moves that are not immediately urgent should be left to the incoming government to decide to avoid restricting the incoming administration’s freedom of action.
New Power Party Legislator Freddie Lim (林昶佐) said that because the South China Sea is the site of a complex power struggle between China and the US, Ma’s action could be interpreted internationally as helping China.
Ma should exercise caution and avoid purposelessly creating complications as he prepares to step down, Lim said.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) said that because there are no “holidays” when it comes to national defense, Ma still has the authority to address immediate concerns, while long-term planning should be left to the new government.
Additional reporting by Abraham Gerber
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