Both Taiwan (ROC) and China (PRC) legally claim sovereign rights over the Spratly archipelago composed of islets and reefs in the form of a U-shaped line based on the same assertion that they are historically Chinese waters—made up by eight or nine disconnected dots in their respective national maps. Neighboring countries, including Vietnam, Taiwan and the PRC have competing claims over the Xisha (Paracel) Islands; Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and the PRC have competing claims over the Nansha (Spratly) Islands (China Brief, January 31). The Taiping (Itu Aba) Island—the largest of the Spratlys (0.18 sq mi) and about 1,000 miles southwest of Taiwan—together with the Tungsha (Pratas) Islands—about 260 miles southwest of Taiwan—has been under the control of Taiwan since 1956 with its military presence, facilities and administrative measures to safeguard its territorial claims.
On February 2, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian boarded an Air Force C-130 transport plane and—for the first time ever by a Taiwanese president—landed on Taiping Island, which was followed by a trip to Tungsha Island on February 10, Chen’s third time since assuming office in 2000. The other claimants to the Spratly Islands have expressed their concerns over the Taiwanese initiative of building an airstrip with a 3,800-foot-long, 100-foot-wide cement path on Taiping Island, which began in 2005. Taipei claims that the airstrip could supplement coastguard facilities on the island for emergency and humanitarian relief operations. Ecologists and some Kuomintang (KMT) lawmakers in the opposition party were critical of the government’s plan of constructing the airstrip on the Taiping Island, while proponents of the airstrip argue that it will reinforce Taiwan’s long-standing assertion of sovereignty over the disputed waters and legal claim to maritime rights.
Which is Controversial: An Airstrip or President Chen?
Taiwan is the first of the claimant countries to establish a military presence and exercise effective jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands after World War II. The PRC, the latecomer in this island-grabbing race, started its first occupation of the Yongshu Jiao (Fiery Cross) in 1988. For several decades, PRC scholars and experts expressed in private conversations their appreciation toward Taiwan for safeguarding the Taiping Island by maintaining a constant patrol of the South China Sea before Beijing first set its foot on the Spratlys. Taiwan’s management of its policy toward the South China Sea, however, is far from impressive.
Taiwan’s policy toward the South China Sea from the 1970s to the 1990s was one that could be characterized as self-restrained and moderate. When islands claimed by the Taiwanese government were occupied by other claimants, Taiwan did not take concrete military actions but simply issued diplomatic notes to protest the encroachment on its territory. In comparison to the airstrip built by Vietnam on Nanwei Dao (Spratly Island, 2,000 feet), Malaysia on Danwan Jiao (Swallow Reef, 5,000 feet), and the Philippines on Chungye Dao (Pagasa Island, 4,000 feet), Taiwan and China are the only two claimants that did not maintain an airstrip on the Spratlys until 2008. Neither did Taipei strengthen its military projection capability in the Taiping Island as China and Vietnam have done since 1988, the year when the PRC entered the Spratlys and ignited a naval standoff with Vietnam.
Table 1. Major Garrisoned Islands in the Spratly Islands
China: Yongshu Jiao (Fiery Cross)/ Islands Occupied: 7 / Year Occupied: 1988
Philippines: Thitu (Pagasa; Chungye Dao)/ Islands Occupied: 9 / Year Occupied: 1971
Vietnam: DaoTrưong Sa (Spratly Island; Nanwei Dao)/ Islands Occupied: 27 / Year Occupied: 1974
Malaysia: Terumbu Layang Layang/ Islands Occupied: 5 / Year Occupied: 1983
(Swallow Reef; Danwan Jiao)
Taiwan: Taiping Dao (Itu Aba; Dao Ba Bình; Ligao)/ Islands Occupied: 1/ Year Occupied: 1956
Source: 2004 National Defense Report, Republic of China (Taipei: Ministry of Defense, 2004), p.10.
In 1999-2000, Taipei surprised many countries when it announced that it was downgrading its military presence on Taiping and Pratas Islands . At its peak, the number of stationed troops reached 500. In February 2000, the jurisdiction of these islands shifted from the Ministry of National Defense to the Coast Guard Administration. Subsequently, Taiwan also reduced the number of marines stationed on these islands, but added some Coast Guard personnel to deal with fishery disputes on the adjacent waters and security safeguard measures. Taiwan still maintains and operates its air defense and heavy machine guns on these islands, and there are only 10 stationed military troops on its occupied island—in addition to 190 coast guard personnel—compared to 90 for Malaysia, 100 for the Philippines, 600 for the PRC and 2,000 for Vietnam . Taipei’s move to reduce the number of troops on the islands was not reciprocated by the other claimants, who did not indicate any willingness to take similar steps in seeking a peaceful resolution for the region with Taiwan.
Contrary to the false notion held by Beijing that Taipei was trying to forfeit its claim of these two islands to the PRC or the ASEAN in order to claim the statehood of Taiwan, Taipei’s tactical moves were mainly due to the absence of a clear grand strategy toward the South China Sea and a streamlined defense structure. Security analysts of all stripes were critical of the government’s decision and seriously urged the Taiwanese government to reexamine its apparently misguided policy.
For bolstering Taiwan’s claim and efficient occupation of the Taiping Island, construction of an airstrip had long been a pet project of security analysts in Taiwan. President Chen first raised the idea of branding Taiwan as a maritime nation in 2000, but his major focus was not on the South China Sea but on cross-Strait relations. Only after Chen’s reelection in 2004 and the release of the National Security Report in 2006 did the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government start to emphasize the importance of maritime interests, which is regarded as one of the major security threats facing the country. The report urges the government to elevate the status of maritime affairs’ decision-making and to “utilize oceanic resources for sustainable development, interact with other democratic maritime countries, and together respond to threats from the sea” . Subsequently, the decision-making body on the South China Sea also shifted from the Ministry of Interior to the National Security Council in 2006.
In addition to building communications infrastructure and harbor facilities on these two islands, the DPP government opened up the Tungsha Island to charter tourism and made the island the sixth national park of Taiwan in 2007. President Chen Shui-bian visited the Tungsha Island on three occasions, first in December 2000, then in July 2005 and lastly in February 2008. The readjustment of control from the Ministry of National Defense to the Coast Guard Administration might help smooth further infrastructure development of the Pratas and Taiping islands since 2000.
Reactions from Other Claimants
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao avoided direct comments on President Chen’s historic trip to Taiping Island, and only stated that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and adjacent waters. Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory. China is willing to solve the South China Sea disputes through friendly consultation with relevant countries and work with them to safeguard peace and stability there” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the People’s Republic of China, February 5). China took an uncharacteristically low-profile position on its usual interpretation that any airstrips or facilities in the South China Sea that were built by Taiwan also belong to the PRC. Beijing’s calculus is that the airstrip could indirectly bolster the Chinese presence in the region vis-à-vis other ASEAN claimants.
Beijing designated the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan as the focal point for any contacts—and as counterparts to discuss the South China Sea issue—with the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. Delegates from that National Institute visited Taipei in November 2007 and in discussions indicated no major concern over the construction of the airstrip on Taiping Island. They also avoided revealing any undergoing development between China and ASEAN for the finalization of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, although it was expressed that if the other claimants bypassed Taipei for negotiations, Beijing may be willing to talk and respond to the questions from Vietnam and the Philippines over the implications of this airstrip for the tripartite Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in 2005.
Vietnam has so far issued the sternest repsonse to the airstrip on the Taiping Island, which Hanoi also considers a part of its territories. After the successful C-130 military transport aircraft test run on January 24, Vietnam Foreign Ministry Spokesman Le Dzung publicly urged “Taiwan to immediately stop this activity and not to commit similar violations in this area.” On February 2, Le Dzung further “denounces the visit of Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian to Ba Binh Island, Truong Sa archipelago.” Hanoi believed that “[t]his is an extremely serious act of escalation, violating Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty over the Truong Sa archipelago, causing tension and more complication to the region. Taiwan is fully responsible for all consequences caused by their move” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs [Vietnam], February 13).
The Philippines regards the Taiwanese airstrip on the Taiping (Ligao) Island as a diplomatic and political issue rather than a military matter (Philippine Star, February 4). Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto Romulo formally issued a statement expressing “serious concern over this reported development that works against the joint efforts by claimant countries in the South China Sea to achieve peace and stability in the region in accordance with the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC).” Secretary Romulo also stated that “[i]t is unfortunate that Taiwan is resorting to what may be considered as irresponsible political posturing that could be of no possible advantage to the peace-loving Taiwanese people” (Department of Foreign Affairs [Philippines], February 2).
Taiwan and the Philippines have provided mutual assistance to each other over emergency needs in the occupied islands. For instance, through the arrangement of the Red Cross Association and rescue coordination, Philippine aircraft once flew over the Taiping Island to airdrop medical aid for the Taiwanese Coast Guard personnel. In November 2007, the Philippine government asked Taipei for help in searching for a S211 military trainer missing in operations 50 nautical miles to the north of the Taiping Island (Liberty Times, February 3).
Spratly Initiative: The Missing Link
Even in the absence of any official treaty for formal cooperation with other claimants to the Spratly Islands, Taiwan has long undertaken the exercise of self-restraint in the disputed areas, and Taipei would like to become a participant and signatory to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Taiwan supports the idea of temporarily shelving the sovereignty dispute in order to explore ways of jointly developing, managing and policing the South China Sea. In 1995, then-President Lee Teng-hui proposed that a multinational South China Sea Development Company with funds of $10 billion be established, with the profits from its activities used for infrastructure development in the ASEAN countries (Strait Times, August 23, 1995). While other claimants focused their attention on the airstrip, they failed to comment on the so-called Spratly Initiative just announced by President Chen on Taiping Island, through which Taiwan can contribute to peace in the Spratly Islands.
Among the four points underscored by Chen’s Spratly Initiative, he first committed that Taiwan is willing to accept in principle the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and he advocated peaceful means of resolving territorial and jurisdictional disputes. Secondly, Chen suggested that the countries concerned agree to recognize the region as an ecological protection area where the depletion of resources would be forbidden. Thirdly, Chen proposed a plan to have international ecologists and environmentalists conduct research around the area of the Tungsha, Taiping Island, and Zhongzhou Reef (Ban Than Reef), which is located between the Taiping Island and Vietnamese-occupied Dungian Shazhou (Sand Cay) on a regular basis. Fourthly, Chen encouraged the establishment of a non-governmental South China Sea research center to serve as a second-track diplomatic channel to alleviate tension in the South China Sea (Taipei Times, February 3 and 4; China Post, February 3).
On February 10, 2008, President Chen elaborated on his idea of creating a maritime ecological preservation area in the South China Sea based off the Micronesia Challenge, which was initiated by Taiwan’s diplomatic ally Palau in the South Pacific to “[e]ffectively conserve at least 30 percent of the near-shore marine and 20 percent of the terrestrial resources across Micronesia by the year 2020” . Chen’s Spratly Initiative may turn out to be too difficult to be implemented since Taiwan has no official diplomatic ties with any of the other claimants. The PRC, however, may find it of interest to coordinate with Taiwan over joint cooperative projects in the South China Sea, but it will be on a second-track basis rather than any efforts to bring Taiwan into the fold of a multilateral cooperative program.
Taiwan is less concerned about the possibility of China or other ASEAN claimants employing force against the Taiping Island. Beijing could hardly justify taking military actions against the Taiping Island when other claimants are occupying Chinese claimed territories. Vietnam is wary of provoking Taiwan’s garrison lest they might invite a military response from Beijing. Taipei knows that it is difficult to effectively defend the Taiping Island and an airstrip would demonstrate its efforts to close the security gap. With the construction of the airstrip on the Taiping Island, Taipei might reconsider its insufficient attention paid to the South China Sea.
A crisis in the Taiwan Strait could easily trigger a domino effect and escalate tensions in the South China Sea. For instance, in potential scenarios of military confrontations drawn out in Taiwan’s defense circles; there is a worry that the PRC could launch a long-distance blockade of the sea-lanes of communications (SLOCs) southwest of Taiwan. If, as some fear, Taiwan is absorbed by Beijing, the Chinese Communists would then occupy the two largest islands in the South China Sea. If that is the case, it may be too late for Taiwan’s neighbors in the region to realize that Taiwan or its military presence in the South China Sea can, in fact, be a buffer between them and mainland China’s military.
1. Yann-huei Song, “The Overall Situation in the South China Sea in the New Millennium: Before and After the September 11 Terrorist Attacks,” Ocean Development and International Law, No. 34 (2003), p. 241.
2. 2002 National Defense Report, Republic of China (Taipei: Ministry of Defense, 2002), p.20; 2004 National Defense Report, Republic of China (Taipei: Ministry of Defense, 2004), p.10.
3. Ibid., p. 93.
4. “Micronesia Challenge,” cited in https://www.palau.biodiv-chm. org/ index.php? menuid=3600&lang=en&cl=blue&q=.