China took advantage of the vacuum left behind when US carriers stayed out of the western Pacific Ocean due to COVID-19 outbreaks on several US Navy warships.
The Chinese government is solidifying its hold on artificial islands in the South China Sea by moving in missiles and surveillance equipment, and formalizing its occupation by creating two municipal districts in the region under Hainan Island’s Sansha — Xisha District on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) to administer the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Nansha District on Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島) to administer the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) — and naming many undersea features in a bid to show possession.
China is also intensifying its tough posture toward Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. A Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk by a Chinese naval vessel and a Malaysian oil-exploring boat was harassed by another Chinese vessel.
The Ministry of National Defense in Taipei on May 4 confirmed that China plans to set up an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, which would require all civilian aircraft to identify themselves and announce their location.
Kyodo News on May 12 reported that the Chinese military is to hold a large-scale landing drill in the South China Sea in August in preparation for an invasion of Pratas Island (Dongsha Island, 東沙島).
This Taiwanese-held island is the northernmost island in the South China Sea and a strategically important location at the entrance of Bashi Channel.
If China takes over this island and converts it into a military base, it would greatly threaten US naval ships and give Chinese warships an entrance into the Pacific.
As Beijing expands and strengthens its strongholds in the South China Sea, the US has no land bases in the region, except for two servicing harbors in the Philippine’s Subic Bay and in Singapore.
US warships that traverse the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait need ready protection from fighter jets and missiles, but the US bases on Okinawa are about 1,610km away from the South China Sea and those on Guam are about 2,575km away — both are beyond the range of most fighter jets.
US warships must depend on aircraft carriers, but carriers, with crews of about 5,000 personnel, are a major target for concentrated attacks by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and must stay at least 800km behind the frontlines. US carriers cannot always stay near the South China Sea and also can take too long to arrive from their home ports.
Although the US Navy has technological superiority, the PLA Navy has a large local force and nearby land bases. A missile can disable a carrier, whereas a missile hit might disable a runway for a day, but it can be repaired and operational by the next day.
A land base is also much cheaper to build than a carrier. To adequately protect its warships, the US should set up land bases with airfields and missile installations on Taiwan.
Okinawa might house US bases critical for guarding the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, but it also has a considerable amount of anti-US sentiment.
On Aug. 11, 2018, about 70,000 people gathered in the capital, Naha, in the pouring rain to protest the relocation of a US Marine Corps air station from a heavily populated town to a remote coastal area there.
Their complaints are understandable — Okinawa houses about half of the 50,000 US troops in Japan and the bases occupy a sizeable area on the small island — which is why Washington should consider relocating personnel from Okinawa to Taiwan.
Within an area of 36,250km2, Taiwan has 286 mountain summits of more than 3,000m, which could serve as a shield for bases placed on the east side of the island. Fighter jets could also be protected inside mountain caves.
On the east side of Taiwan, the ocean floor drops 4,000m, making it ideal for submarine operations. There are also fiber optic cables in the ocean waters surrounding the island for international communication.
Taiwan is strategically critical for US security. Chinese strategists have said that after taking over Taiwan, China could conduct naval and aerial blockades to choke off Japan, and use Taiwan’s military bases to threaten Japan and the US.
In such a scenario, South Korea and the Philippines might deem the US to be undependable and surrender to a Chinese military threat, in a domino effect.
After taking Taiwan, China would become even more aggressive and the US would be pushed out of the western Pacific, with its next line of defense being the second island chain, Guam and Hawaii, which are far apart and isolated in the broad expanse of the Pacific.
PLA Navy carrier battle groups could easily reach the US West Coast.
China has two carrier battle groups that are operational and two more carriers under construction, with the goal of amassing five carrier battle groups for long-range attacks.
On Sept. 25, 2018, Beijing denied a request from Washington for the USS Wasp to make a port call in Hong Kong the following month. The USS Wasp is a medium-size aircraft carrier used by the US Marine Corps to carry as many as 3,000 personnel, 20 F-35B fighter jets and six helicopters. The USS Wasp had no choice but to make a supply stop in Singapore.
Washington should have used Beijing’s disrespect as an excuse to divert the vessel to Taiwan.
Also, it is dangerous for US warships to stop in Hong Kong, because Chinese agents might sneak a bomb into cargo when it resupplies or attach one onto the hull of a ship.
On Dec. 12, 2017, US President Donald Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, which authorized the re-establishment of port of call exchanges between the Taiwan and US navies.
However, US warships have yet to visit Taiwan, as the US does not want to upset China, which Beijing could interpret as a lack of US willingness to protect Taiwan and move forward with invasion plans.
During the Korean War, US Army general Douglas MacArthur emphasized Taiwan’s strategic importance by calling it an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Today, the US could use Taiwan as a base for protecting US warships sailing in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea.
Kenneth Wang is a founder of the Institute of Taiwanese Studies in Los Angeles, a former president of the Taiwanese American Center in San Diego, California, and a former president of the US West Coast Taiwanese Summer Conferences.
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