Neutralizing Contention: A New Policy for Taiping Island and the South China Sea

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Neutralizing Contention: A New Policy for Taiping Island and the South China Sea

To create space between its maritime claims and Beijing’s, Taiwan should neutralize Taiping Island.

Neutralizing Contention: A New Policy for Taiping Island and the South China Sea
Credit: Google Maps

Rising tensions in the South China Sea between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and other claimants, and the militarization of those disputes, are making Taiwan’s continued sovereignty claim over the nine-dash line untenable. More than ever, as Beijing intensifies its propaganda campaign to encourage the perception that Taiwan and China are cooperating in the defense of “shared” territory and interests in the region, Taipei must present policies that clearly distinguish its aims and means from those adopted by Beijing.

So what is to be done? The unclear or mixed signals, lack of direction, and self-contradictions that have become a staple of Taiwanese statements in recent years are no longer sufficient. Ambiguity has failed. Taipei must therefore embark on a new path by proposing concrete measures to de-conflict its relationship with other regional claimants and provide alternatives to the ongoing escalations and litigation that can only lead to catastrophe.

Although it will be some time before Taiwan can fully abandon its claims under the nine-dash line — a legacy of the 1947 Republic of China (ROC) constitution with which it is stuck — it can nevertheless take immediate measures to show its desire to resolve ongoing disputes. One first step would be to neutralize Taiping Island (Itu Aba, 太平島). This article explores the rationale for adopting this policy course, the necessary steps that must be taken to achieve this goal, and the benefits that would accrue. Such a policy is not a guarantee of success, but as we shall see, it is worth exploring, if only because it has become clear that doing “more of the same” is a recipe for failure — and that in the present militarized context, failure will be costlier than ever.

The “Taiping Initiative”

Taiwan currently controls Taiping Island, the largest island in the Spratlys (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島). The island features a 1,150-meter runway, which was completed in 2008 and is long enough to accommodate Hercules C-130 transport aircraft. Plans have been proposed in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to extend the runway by 350 meters to 1,500 meters. A total of NT$3.37 billion (US$106.5 million) has also been earmarked to build a wharf that could accommodate large-displacement vessels from the Coast Guard Administration (CGA) and, presumably, the ROC Navy. The islet also features a 7-meter-high tactical air navigation (TACAN) facility to facilitate instrument landing, and its defenses (under the CGA since 2000) have been bolstered with AAA guns and mortar units, moves that have sparked concern in Hanoi.

While control of the islet can be a source of pride for some Taiwanese and, according to some experts, ensures a place for Taiwan at the negotiation table, the price of that control in terms of its impact on Taiwan’s relations with Vietnam and the Philippines is high, and possibly detrimental to Taipei’s larger strategic objectives. Taiwan’s longstanding claim poisons its relations with other claimants, and each new move to re-militarize the island — a gradual policy of the Ma Ying-jeou administration — has only served to exacerbate those tensions.

Besides unduly increasing tensions, control of Taiping makes no sense militarily, as the islet is virtually indefensible. It is largely exposed to sea, air, and ballistic missile attack, and moreover the lines of communication (LOC) between it and Taiwan proper, whose southernmost tip is located 1,600 kilometers away, could not be secured during hostilities. Troops on the island would quickly find themselves isolated, and with the LOC cut off by enemy naval and air forces, no reinforcement could possibly be sent to assist them.

Unless Taipei can make a valid claim that retaining Taiping provides quantifiable military value to the defense of Taiwan proper and its outlying islands, it should immediately abandon sovereignty claims over it, declare it neutralized, and hand it over to a multilateral body. Moreover, as part of this effort, Taipei should pull out all CGA and support military staff (e.g., marine trainers) from the island and remove all military structures and equipment, unless those can serve a civilian purpose. As sovereignty over Taiping Island is virtually a non-issue among the majority of the Taiwanese public, such a move is unlikely to engender substantial resentment across Taiwan or threaten whichever party implements that policy.

The argument here isn’t that Taiwan should simply pack up and leave. After all, as experts have long argued, Taiwan’s claim to and control of Taiping ensures — admittedly to a disputable degree — that it is not completely sidelined by other claimants within the region. Consequently, any decision by Taipei to forsake control over Taiping would be contingent on a promise by other countries that it would continue to play a role in the region. In light of the fact that Taiwan does not have U.N. membership, the global body would probably not be the most suitable organization for this endeavor, and Taiwan should definitely not insist on a U.N. role if one isn’t forthcoming. A more feasible option would be for a regional multilateral organization — let’s call it the Taiping Initiative — to be set up, which would involve all the claimants to the islet as well as outside countries with a stake in the Pacific, including the U.S., Japan, Canada, Australia, and India, among others. Following the neutralization of Taiping and the removal of Taiwanese forces currently deployed there, defense of the islet and its surrounding waters would, for evident reasons, be handed over to non-claimant parties comprising the multinational organization.

A Taiping Initiative Center (TIC), funded in equal proportion by all members, would then be established on the island. Among other things, the TIC would conduct research on conflict resolution, the sustainable development of natural resources, environmental protection, and anti-piracy. The center could also bring together international experts to conduct in-depth studies to assess the proven hydrocarbon reserves that lie underneath the South China Sea and thereby undermine the exaggerated estimates that are used by some claimants to shift attention away from their purely strategic, defense, or territorial considerations. In order to facilitate research and exploration, plans to extend the existing airstrip and to build a wharf could be upheld; however both would be put under multinational civilian authorities and furthermore military forces would be barred from using them, except under extraordinary circumstances (e.g., relief efforts following a natural catastrophe within the region).

Neutral forces deployed near the area could also be called upon to conduct search-and-rescue operations and promote multilateral efforts in that regard.

From Claimant to Peacemaker

Besides showing goodwill and lowering tensions between Taiwan and other claimants, neutralizing Taiping Island would represent a clear departure from an ongoing policy in Taipei to gradually re-militarize the islet. Moreover, such a move would dispel any notion that Taiwan intends to cooperate with China’s military to defend the PRC’s and ROC’s “shared” claims to the region under the nine-dash lines. In fact, this peaceful approach would contrast with Beijing’s increasingly belligerent approach to territorial sea disputes. Although there is no guarantee that other claimants would agree to join the initiative, let alone “allow” Taiwan to play a role in it, China’s aggressive behavior in recent years would undoubtedly make East Asian countries more amenable to a peace initiative by Taipei and perhaps even more willing to risk “angering” China by agreeing to cooperate with Taiwan. Even if such an outcome remains in doubt, it is worth trying, especially by political parties that have yet to articulate any policy on the matter and whose future plans for the region are very much a topic of interest for Taiwan’s foreign friends.

Despite its antagonistic behavior, China should also be invited to join the initiative, though it would be made to understand that it would be treated on an equal footing. Given Beijing’s prevailing opposition to the involvement of multilateral organizations in regional territorial disputes and preference for bilateral deals in which it can dominate its weaker opponent, it is unclear whether Beijing would agree to participate in the TIC, especially if there were a role for Taiwan in it. Nevertheless, China is a claimant and its participation is essential to the eventual resolution of those conflicts. Whether it joins or not, however, should not be a deciding factor in the creation of the TIC, which could make substantial contributions to peace and cooperation even without Chinese participation.

Already isolated, Taiwan is in no position to utilize coercive signals and must therefore explore “soft power” initiatives if it is to remain relevant within the region. By being creative and daring to do what others would not dream of doing — in this case abandoning sovereignty over the largest islet in the Spratly Archipelago — Taipei would position itself as an instrument for peace and further distance itself from the martial approach adopted by Beijing in recent years. Should it succeed, the TIC could serve as a model for conflict resolution in other areas of the South China Sea and thus make Taiwan a true peacemaker.