James Holmes

Taiwan and the South China Sea

Recent Features

James Holmes

Taiwan and the South China Sea

Taipei also has claims to the disputed area but may be hard pressed if challenged to defend them.

Oh, dear. First I congratulate our Taiwanese friends on their deft use of soft power. Now I must take them to task for a bit of ill-considered South China Sea diplomacy. Asia Times reports that James Chou, deputy director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently insisted that the region’s contested islands are “undisputed territory” of the Republic of China.

Chou was restating longstanding policy, as manifest in the “ninedashedline” enclosing most of the region’s waters. The much-discussed map containing the nine-dashed line originated not with the Chinese Communist Party but with the Nationalist government headed by Chiang Kai-shek. The ROC published it in the late 1940s, shortly before decamping to Taiwan. That the islands represent undisputed Taiwanese property is untrue on its face. Several South China Sea governments—including Beijing, of course—unabashedly dispute it.

But more importantly, Chou’s words needlessly call attention to the chasm between Taiwan’s power and ambitions. The ROC armed forces have their hands full trying to defend Formosa proper. Their capacity to hold faraway real estate like Taiping Island—let alone the remainder of Taipei’s extravagant claims—is doubtful in the extreme. Speaking loudly with no big stick to swing amounts to “monstrous imprudence,” aspunditWalterLippmannputit seven decades ago. Better to remain silent than advertise one’s shortcomings.

Let’s review Taiping’s strategic merits to illustrate how tough defending outlying islands would be for Taiwan. Alfred Thayer Mahan evaluated islands and other candidates for bases by three standards, namely position, strength, and resources. Taiping Island is well-situated astride important shipping lanes crisscrossing the region. It meets the Mahanian standard for geographic position.

Beyond that, its virtues are few—unless the force occupying it is strong enough to defend and resupply it in the face of enemy resistance. It is a postage stamp, at 1.4 km long and 0.4 km wide. That’s big enough for an airfield. Taipei has duly outfitted it with one and is contemplating extending the runway to accommodate larger aircraft. Chinese forces could easily cut communications with the beleaguered island in wartime. Strength, a.k.a. defensibility, is a minus.

What about resources? True, Taiping is the only island in the Spratly archipelago with its own fresh water. Plentiful fresh water is a significant asset. However, ships or aircraft would have to ferry in foodstuffs and other supplies from Taiwan to support any serious expeditionary presence there. Resources rates another thumbs-down.

Without sea control or air supremacy—operational conditions Taiwan’s increasingly outmatched air force and navy are unlikely to achieve—Taiping Island will wither in any conflict. Mahan extolledJamaica as a naval base but pointed out that nearby Cuba overshadowed it. A fleet based in Cuba could sever sea communications between Jamaica and the Atlantic Ocean. Only a dominant fleet stationed in Jamaica, then, could break an enemy blockade and tap the island’s full potential.

Similarly, only dominant naval and air forces can impart value to Taiping. Beijing could make good use of it; Taipei, not so much.