Vietnam’s military expansion on nearby islands could threaten Taiwan’s lone outpost in the South China Sea, according to a new report submitted to Taiwan’s Control Yuan.
The report, published by the Ministry of National Defense, noted that Vietnam’s deployment of mobile missiles and artillery guns on island bases could pose a threat to Taiwan’s military outpost Itu Aba (which Taiwan calls Taiping Island), the largest feature in the Spratly Islands which is also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and China.
Of particular concern are moves by Vietnam to expand its troop presence in Sand Cay Island, including by deploying new shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles (known as Dunqian Sand Island in Chinese Son Ca Island to the Vietnamese) – which lies just 11 km east of Itu Aba. If Vietnam plans on deploying these portable missiles close to Itu Aba, the report says it could attack Taiwan’s C-130 military transport planes and supply ships on their routine visits to Taiping Island.
“Vietnam may plan to deploy these portable missiles to reef islets closer to Taiping Island or might carry them on patrol boats to within striking range. In such a scenario, our military transport aircraft heading to Taiping Island would be directly threatened,” The Taipei Times quoted the report as saying.
Itu Aba, the only physical manifestation of Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea, is an important feature not just because of its size, but because of its supporting infrastructure – including a large runway and fresh water supply – which makes habitation possible. As a result, experts say controlling Itu Aba could eventually help a country advance a legal claim not just on the island itself, but its immediate surroundings or potentially the whole Spratly archipelago and the resources within it.
The report, part of an evaluation of the regional security environment in East Asia, implored Taiwan to boost its defenses in the South China Sea in the face of military expansion by Vietnam as well as China and the Philippines.
In response to the report, some lawmakers have recommended that the country strengthen its own capabilities in the wake of the report’s findings. Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators Johnny Chiang and Lin fu-fang said a new-generation Tuo-Jiang-class corvette, equipped with five surface-to-surface Hsiung Feng 2E missiles, could help Taiwan increase its deterrence capabilities.
“We must flex our firepower muscle there to deter such threats. Therefore, I request the military to station one or two Tuo Jiang corvettes at the Taiping base on a long-term basis,” Chiang said.
But Minister of National Defense Yen Ming reminded the legislators that since Vietnam has yet to deploy the shoulder-fired missiles on Sand Cay Island, their limited range did not yet pose an imminent threat to Itu Aba. He also said preparations were already underway to help Taiwan adjust to different military contingencies and defend its claims.
Taiwan has been looking to boost its own capabilities on Itu Aba, which is administered by its coast guard, in recent months. Taiwanese officials have announced plans to improve its runway to accommodate transport and marine patrol aircraft and to construct a port that would allow naval frigates and coastguard cutters to be stationed there permanently.
The plans have predictably drawn protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, who have questioned both the legality of Taiwan’s expansion as well as its impact on peace and stability in the South China Sea.