Ahead of the ruling by an international tribunal on a dispute between the Philippines and China over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, a senior government official expressed concerns that Taiwan does not having sufficient defense capacity on Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島), which might make it “a piece of meat amid a pack of wolves” as surrounding nations have been strengthening their military capacities.
Itu Aba is the biggest feature in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and is controlled by the Republic of China (ROC). The Spratlys are claimed whole or in part by Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam Malaysia and Brunei.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that at the moment, Taiping is guarded by Coast Guard Administration (CGA) personnel, and while these personnel were trained by ROC Marines before being deployed, the main mission for them is “law enforcement,” which is different from what the marines do.
The most powerful weapon on the island are the Bofors 40mm guns lent by the armed forces, which have a maximum firing range of 7,100m if fired into the air and 10,000m if fired horizontally, the official said.
The army has also transferred several 120mm mortars to the coast guard personnel stationed on the island, which have a maximum range of 6,100m, the official said.
While the defense capabilities on Itu Aba might seem stronger with the arrival of this weaponry, Vietnam has guns with different firing ranges on Namyit Island (Hongsiou Island, 鴻庥島), which is 20km from Taiping, and Sandy Cay (Duncian Shajou, 敦謙沙洲), which is 11km away, the official said.
Vietnam has stationed 122mm howitzers on Namyit that have a range that covers Itu Aba, while Vietnam last year began dispatching more weapons to Sandy Cay that could threaten it, the official said.
If a conflict broke out between Taiwan and Vietnam over the South China Sea, “the Vietnamese are capable of attacking Taiping Island, while our coast guard weapons on Taiping are unable to reach Namyit Island and Sandy Cay,” the official said.
China has built up a heavy military presence on the Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑礁), which is about 190km southwest of Itu Aba, with one battalion of soldiers stationed there, an airbase capable of catering to large military aircraft, and anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, the official said.
If the situation changes in South China Sea, Taiwan should pay special attention to movements of China’s People’s Liberation Army forces on Fiery Cross Reef, the official added.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration is scheduled to deliver its ruling tomorrow in The Hague.
In related news, a coast guard ship yesterday set sail for the South China Sea to patrol Itu Aba and other islands controlled by Taiwan, the CGA said.
The Wei Hsing cutter will join the rotation of ships dispatched by the Ministry of National Defense to safeguard Taiwan’s territories, the CGA said.
Additional reporting by CNA and staff writer