Taiwan’s South China Sea Plan

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Taiwan’s South China Sea Plan

Taiwan controls a prime piece of real estate in the South China Sea. J. Michael Cole on its possible uses.

Strategically located in the middle of the Spratly island chain in the hotly contested South China Sea, Taiping Islandispreciousreal estate.

Besides being the largest feature in the Spratlys, the Taiwan-controlled island is home to one of the only two airstrips in the area that is long enough to accommodate large aircraft such as the Hercules C-130.

Located a mere 800km from the Scarborough Shoal, less than 600km from Vietnam’s coast and 500km from the Philippines island of Palawan, Taiping can be instrumental for projecting power and securing sea lanes in an area that is home to overlapping sovereignty claims between China, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan. As a bonus, Taiping has abundant fisheries and is the only island in the Spratlys to feature an indigenous supply of fresh water.

Taiwan is now reportedly assessing the possibility of adding 300-500m to the 1,150m runway, which it completed in 2008 amid protests by regional countries (Thitu Island, which is controlled by the Philippines, is the only other island in the Spratlys that has an airstrip long enough for large aircraft to operate from). This follows an announcement in February that Taiwan would build a 7-meter-high tactical air navigation (TACAN) facility on the island to facilitate instrument landing (until it is completed in September, pilots have to make visual contact to land their aircraft, even in bad weather).

The move would turn a valuable piece of real estate into an even more attractive one, while creating both opportunities and possible risks for Taiwan.

Extending the runway would not be without its technical challenges, as the additional strip would have to be built on the beach or in shallow waters. But those are not insurmountable. Once completed, not only would the Taiwanese Air Force’s C-130s be able to land and take off more safely, but the airstrip, located 1,376km from Taiwan’s southernmost point, could serve as a base for P-3COrion maritime patrol aircraft, local media said, citing anonymous national security sources. Taipei purchased 12 refurbished P-3Cs from the United States in a US$1.9 billion deal signed in 2007. The first six are scheduled to enter service by next year and to be based at Pingtung Air Base in southern Taiwan.

Deploying the aircraft, which also has anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, would be a major boost to Taiwan’s ability to monitor a large swath of the South China Sea and, should it so desire, to complement already existing surveillance efforts by the U.S. and Japan in the increasingly contentious area.

However, doing so would reverse a policy that has been in place since 2000, when the Coast Guard Administration under the Ministry of the Interior, rather than the military, was charged with safeguarding Taiwan’s claims to the island and its surrounding waters. Among other things, this decision is believed to have had a mitigating effect on tensions in the area by putting civilian agencies, instead of the armed forces, in charge. For one thing, deploying P-3Cs on Taiping would require the presence of Navy personnel, hangars, and logistical support — in other words, a re-militarization of the island.

Approached for this article, a Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesman told The Diplomat on July 19 that the National Security Council, not the MND, was in charge of the airstrip, and was therefore in no position to confirm or deny the extension plans. The response sends a clear signal that civilian authorities continue to dominate control of the island and that its militarization is not part of the plan for the moment.

Asked about a possible deployment of P-3Cs on the island, the spokesman’s response was more oblique, saying that the aircraft would be used to monitor and safeguard “the entirety of the Republic of China [Taiwan’s] territory.” This could be interpreted to include areas of the South China Sea over which it claims sovereignty, though this comes short of confirming plans to actually base P-3Cs on Taiping. Interestingly, the Philippine government is currently reviewing the option of acquiring its own P-3Cs following an offer by U.S. Pacific Command head Admiral Samuel Locklear in August last year.

Taiwan’s careful approach does not mean that the military option for Taiping has been written off. In fact, as tensions have risen in the area, some Taiwanese legislators, chief among them Lin Yu-fang of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party, have recently called for a greater role for the armed forces in defending the island. Those calls include the possible deployment of dual-mount Stinger surface-to-air missiles, 40mm anti-aircraft guns, and mortars. Lin also asked the MND earlier this year to conduct a feasibility study for the deployment of Tien Chien “Sky Sword,” a domestically produced antiaircraft missile, on the island.

So far, Manila has reacted with equanimity to the reported plans, saying it had no problem” with the expansion project, as Taiping is not one of the nine islands claimed by the Philippines. It remains to be seen whether Manila will retain this view should Taiwanese military forces once again operate on the island.

The Philippines’s reaction also overlooks the fact that Taiping Island is of great strategic value, and that while Taiwan is unlikely to use it to project power, others could be tempted to do so.

China, more specifically, has launched extensive efforts to reinforce its claims in the South China Sea, efforts that have a strong military component. Among other endeavors, its engineers have built artificial islets, some featuring radar installations, vessel docks, and helicopter landing pads. However, the benefits of artificial islands are easily outweighed by natural — and larger — features, and are especially vulnerable to attack; one large-yield conventional bomb, such as the BLU-82 “daisy cutter” or the newer GBU-43/B, for example, would ostensibly be sufficient to sink them.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would without doubt see several advantages to occupying Taiping, as it would provide a strong complement to its aircraft carrier, landing platform docks (e.g., Type 071) and landing helicopter docks (such as the Type 081, which is rumored to be in development). The PLA could conceivably also deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) on the island.

If Manila’s initial reaction to the news is any indication, the extension project is unlikely to have an immediate incidence on the likelihood of armed conflict in the region. Nevertheless, contingent on future developments in the South China Sea disputes, the island’s usefulness as a military platform could be such that at some point the PLA might decide to seize it from Taiwan.

Under present circumstances, with a KMT administration in Taipei whose claims to the South China Sea are similar to Beijing’s, the likelihood of violence between China and Taiwan over Taiping is low. Despite the political differences between the two sides, Beijing has a relatively favorable view of Taiwan’s control of the island, seeing it (perhaps mistakenly) as willingness on Taiwan’s part to defend China’s “historicalclaims to the entire area within the ninedash line. However, this could change if relations across the Taiwan Strait, which have been relatively stable since 2008, were to deteriorate.

Another, though even less likely, scenario is one involving armed clashes between Taiwan and either Vietnam or the Philippines. Any attempt by those countries to seize Taiping could embolden China to intervene, presumably on Taiwan’s behalf, and thereby gain control of the island.

Whether Taiwan decides to militarize Taiping Island remains to be seen, but so far the tendency seems to point in that direction. Whatever the government does, Taiping will remain a coveted piece of real estate in the South China Sea; finding a balance between defending it, while not making it too attractive that others want to take it by force, will be key to its fate.