The Ministry of National Defense said yesterday that it is planning to station military forces on Taiping Island (
"We recognize the strategic significance of the Spratly Islands and we are planning to return our marines [to Taiping Island]," minister Lee Jye (李傑) told a legislative national defense committee meeting yesterday.
The ministry withdrew its marines from the Pratas and Spratly islands in 1999 citing logistical difficulties, leaving the coastguard to patrol those territories.
Construction of an airstrip on Taiping Island began late last year. Although the ministry initially said that it was being built for humanitarian purposes, such as emergency rescue efforts by the coastguard of sick or injured sailors or fishermen, it later admitted that it also had strategic value.
That admission, together with the more recent decision to place marines on the island suggests that the ministry is taking a more active approach to protecting the nation's territorial waters in the South China Sea.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) said in the legislative meeting that China had various ways of placing pressure on Taiwan, one of which could be to launch a surprise attack on either Taiping Island or Wuchiu Island (烏坵) in Kinmen County.
In admitting the strategic considerations behind the government's plan to build an airstrip on Taiping Island, former deputy minister of national defense Michael Tsai (
Against this backdrop, it would be very helpful if Taiwan could expand its strategic depth and improve its early warning capability by building a base in the South China Sea, which is an international thoroughfare for airplanes and ships, Tsai said.
Military experts have said that if Taiwanese military aircraft were able to take off and land on outlying islands in the South China Sea, the nation's defensive capabilities would be vastly improved.
Observers have also noted that Chinese exploration vessels frequently appear in waters south of Taiwan, speculating that they do so in order to conduct hydrographic research for their submarine fleets.
They warned that the waters around the Spratly Islands and Pratas Islands are strategically significant because the submarines of Beijing's South China Sea fleet must pass the islands to enter the waters southwest of Taiwan, or to enter the Pacific Ocean through the Bashi Strait.
The Spratly Islands, which consist of more than 100 small islands or reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds and oil deposits, are claimed either entirely or partially by Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
While Taiwan occupies Taiping Island, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have also stationed small numbers of military forces on some of the other islands.