According to Japan’s Kyodo news agency, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is to hold military exercises in August centering on an attack on the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) in the South China Sea.
Taiwan’s military leaders have let it be known that, should the islands be invaded by a hostile force, the nation would respond in one of three ways: a complete withdrawal, a fight to the death or surrender.
The islands became a hot topic in Taiwan overnight, but any discussion of the Pratas Islands should factor in the ignominy on Taiwan’s loss of Thitu Island (Jhongye Island, 中業島).
Thitu Island is the second-largest natural island in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and lies to the west of the Tiezhi Shuidao (Thitu trough).
On July 29, 1971, the Republic of China (ROC) army withdrew from the island to avoid a typhoon, and the Philippines took advantage of the situation to send its troops to the island, which it named Pagasa Island.
After this incident, surrounding nations concluded that Taiwan was not resolved to operate in the South China Sea.
The reality is that the Pratas Islands are vulnerable to attack and not easily defended, but at the same time they could act as an unsinkable aircraft carrier protecting Taiwan proper to the south.
The crux of this dilemma is that the islands have comprehensive airport and runway facilities, but lack a standing military presence.
With the islands located in a remote position far out in the South China Sea, the F-16s and Phantom 2000s that are Taiwan’s main first-line aircraft would have burned up much of their fuel by the time they arrive from Taiwan proper, making protecting the islands extremely problematic.
This is why Richard Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in the US, has since 2017 been calling on the US government to sell Taiwan low-cost used KC-135 or KC-130J tanker aircraft, a position this author wholeheartedly agrees with.
Singapore brought in US-made KC-46 tanker aircraft to effectively control the airspace over the Strait of Malacca. If Taiwan is to effectively control the airspace over the Bashi Channel and the islands in the South China Sea, it absolutely needs to bring in tanker aircraft for mid-air refueling.
Also, if US aircraft encounter a serious incident around the first island chain and require mid-air refueling, Taiwan would be able to provide support.
An evaluation of the C-130H transport plane, made by the US company Lockheed Martin and which has been in active service in the ROC Air Force for 30 years, said that their airframe had corroded because of Taiwan’s island climate, and would need to be replaced or given a mid-life update.
The government should consider using KC-130J tanker aircraft or the new version of the C-130J to reinforce the military’s ability to defend the Pratas Islands, as abandoning them would be tantamount to abandoning Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), which would be unthinkable.
The reason that surrounding nations are looking covetously at Taiwan’s outlying islands is that its main fighters have limited range, curtailing its ability to defend distant territories.
The Ministry of National Defense should seek to obtain new-generation transport planes and tanker aircraft.
Improved military capabilities would broaden the nation’s options, and surrounding countries would no longer doubt Taiwan’s resolve to defend that which is its own.
Chang Feng-lin is a university lecturer.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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