There have been media reports that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plans to hold military exercises in August to simulate seizing the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) in the South China Sea.
In the past, only Coast Guard Administration (CGA) personnel have been stationed there, but the Ministry of National Defense has dispatched the Republic of China Marine Corps to the islands, nominally for “ex-situ training,” to prevent a Chinese attack under the guise of military drills.
The move is only a temporary measure and not sufficiently proactive. Instead, the government should officially declare sovereignty over the islands and station troops there.
The South China Sea islands have long been Taiwan’s territory, and permanent military forces were stationed on Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), the largest natural island of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), to show the nation’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty.
In early 2000, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) replaced the Marine Corps garrison on the island with CGA personnel, hoping to lower tension in the region and as a display of goodwill to Southeast Asian nations.
Over the past 20 years, Taiwan has had three presidents, whose administrations have all adopted a nonmilitary approach to the region and showed a willingness to work with its neighbors to address issues such as smuggling, fishing disputes and humanitarian aid in the hope that those nations would shelve any disputes and engage in joint development.
Taiwan’s neighbors have never acknowledged this peaceful approach, but have instead seen it as Taiwan abandoning its sovereignty claims, weakening its position in international South China Sea-related talks.
Among all the claimant states, Taiwan is the only one that is excluded from international talks, such as those which resulted in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
The administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has continued to use “soft” policies, such as issuing statements and deploying the CGA to protect its sovereignty, but it has not curbed other nations’ political ambitions, as is clear from the PLA’s military expansion in the region and its joint air and sea exercises.
The Philippines has also forcibly expelled fishing boats in its claimed exclusive economic zone, and Vietnamese vessels have sailed into the waters off Itu Aba, as if to provoke Taiwan and challenge its sovereignty claim.
In the paper Challenges Facing Taiwan in the South China Sea, published in October 2016 by the Washington-based think tank Project 2049 Institute, Ian Easton said that “the US should encourage Taiwan to consider the deployment of military personnel to its two main island bases in the South China Sea.”
“If Itu Aba and Pratas are not properly garrisoned in peacetime,” Easton said, they “will be tempting, low-hanging fruit for [China] during the next crisis.”
“If Taiwan does not respond to the PLA’s deployments in the South China Sea, it will send the unhelpful (and untrue) signal that Taiwan is weak and not committed to defending its sovereign territory,” he said.
While Taiwan does not have to engage in an arms race, “verbal foreign policy” and coast guard forces are far from enough to reduce or eliminate neighboring nations’ military hostility.
Faced with precipitous circumstances, Taiwan must adopt more advanced strategic measures, such as reassessing the use of armed forces on the islands.
Only with proactive defense operations will Taiwan gain bargaining chips, draw international attention and make its neighbors realize that attempts to seize the islands would cost them dearly.
Yao Chung-yuan is an adjunct professor and former deputy director of the Ministry of National Defense’s strategic planning department.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming
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