The Coast Guard Administration on Monday conducted the first of two drills for the quarter on the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙島). The drills are a routine exercise, but come at a time of increased Chinese military activity near Taiwan.
The Ministry of National Defense last year began stationing marines on Pratas Island and Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), following reports in May that China was planning drills off Hainan meant to simulate capture of Pratas Island. Attention was again drawn to the Pratas Islands after a routine charter flight taking supplies there on Oct. 15 last year was turned back by Hong Kong air traffic controllers as it approached the territory’s flight information region. Hong Kong said it stopped the aircraft because of “dangerous activities” in the area. That sparked speculation that it was a precursor of more actions aimed at cutting off Taiwan’s access to the islands.
Maintaining sovereignty over the Pratas and Itu Aba islands is important for Taiwan, as this allows the Taiwanese navy to project its operational space. It is also important because of the implications of capturing those islands for Taiwan’s ability to protect the rest of its territory.
The US has in recent months reiterated its support for Taiwan, with several US officials admonishing Beijing for pressuring Taiwan, and declaring their continued commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act. That commitment might include US military support in the event of an attack by China on Taiwan proper, or Lienchiang, Kinmen or Penghu counties.
However, China might feel it is less likely that the US military would get involved if it were to attack the Pratas Islands or Itu Aba, as neither has a civilian population. Beijing might take over either of the two as a means of testing US resolve. Taiwan must not give China a chance to try.
Bloomberg reported on Feb. 19 that China’s creation in 2012 of a city called Sansha (三沙) to administer the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) was aimed at normalizing Beijing’s claims over the whole area within its “nine-dash line.” Beijing has built a courthouse, a jail and schools in the city, which now houses a civilian population. It likely thinks that having civilians and accompanying infrastructure on the islands could discourage other countries to impose a blockade or take military action against Chinese forces in the area.
Taiwan should take a cue from China and take applications from Taiwanese who are willing to live on Pratas Island or Itu Aba and subsidize their expenses. Opening the islands to residency, tourism and other commercial activity would bring economic opportunity, cement Taiwan’s claims over the islands and deter a Chinese attack.
Another possibility that the government could explore would be to discuss with Washington the possibility of stationing a US Navy contingent on the islands. This would be easier for the US to justify than stationing a contingent on Taiwan proper, as the Paracels and Spratlys are claimed by numerous countries. The US already regularly conducts freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, so it could easily furnish any contingent stationed there, and could use a naval base on Pratas Island or Itu Aba for rest, and as a base of operations from which to conduct patrols.
Regardless of what action it takes to better secure the islands, the ministry must do more than station marines there. Taiwan must demonstrate to China its resolve to safeguard the islands, or risk Beijing taking advantage of its complacency. The government should explore a plan that would see the islands elevated to the same status as Penghu, Lienchiang and Kinmen counties, building infrastructure and providing residential services on them.
As tensions with China continue to rise, Pratas Island and Itu Aba could become flashpoints in the region, and the islands must be safeguarded at all costs.
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