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Apr 30, 2012 | 16:33 GMT

7 mins read

Taiwan's Maritime Challenges


In late March, two Vietnamese warships reportedly entered the waters around Taiping Island (also known as Itu Aba Island) in the South China Sea, which is controlled by Taiwan but is also claimed by Vietnam and China. Taiwanese media did not make the incident public until late April. Because Vietnam is much closer geographically to the strategic island, Taiwan is concerned that the ships' incursions into restricted waters were intended as an act of provocation. The heightened tensions have serious implications for other powers vying for influence in the South China Sea.

Since Beijing views Taiwan as rightfully part of mainland China, it also views practically all of Taiwan's territorial claims as its own and would likely seize an opportunity to step in if a crisis were to erupt in the South China Sea involving Taiwan. The United States, Taiwan's main ally, has little interest in intervening in any conflict between Taiwan and other claimant countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, because it has increasingly courted them as part of its strategic re-engagement with East Asia. But Washington has even less interest in seeing territorial cooperation between China and Taiwan, however unlikely, that could upset the status quo. Taipei will use the growing tensions in the South China Sea to justify its defensive expansion and to push the United States to complete long-delayed arms sales that Taiwan contends would better enable it to ensure its own maritime defenses, though any arms deal could antagonize Beijing and unsettle U.S.-China relations.

Taiwan's coast guard administration confirmed April 20 that Vietnamese armed vessels twice intruded into Taiwan-controlled waters near Taiping Island in the South China Sea. According to the coast guard, a Vietnamese vessel first entered restricted waters March 22 and another ship entered even farther March 26. In both incursions, the Vietnamese vessels left after Taiwanese coast guard ships were dispatched.

While Vietnam's strategy behind the incursion is unclear, the incident near the disputed island is only the most recent in a series of small assertive steps taken by Vietnam in the South China Sea. The incident takes place amid renewed tensions since the beginning of 2012 between Vietnam and the Philippines on one side and China on the other.

Importance of Taiping Island

At 1.4 kilometers (0.8 miles) in length and 0.4 kilometers in width, Taiping Island is the largest in the Spratly archipelago and one of two islands controlled by Taiwan in the South China Sea. The island sits at the center of the South China Sea Basin, 1,600 kilometers from Taiwan, 800 kilometers from mainland China's Hainan province, 600 kilometers from Vietnam and 500 kilometers from the Philippines' westernmost island of Palawan. As a junction to surrounded islets and reefs, Taiping Island is important for securing sea lanes and establishing any country's presence in the South China Sea.

Taiping Island and Maritime Claims map

Due to its strategic location and resources (Taiping possesses ample fisheries and is the only island in the Spratlys with an indigenous supply of fresh water), the island has served as an important logistic base. Historically, it has been competed over and claimed by nearby countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, mainland China and Taiwan. Following World War II, the nationalist Kuomintang government in China took control of the island from Japan. After the Chinese Civil War (1947-1949) resulted in the Communist takeover of mainland China and the nationalist retreat to Taiwan, Taiping Island remained under nationalist control. As part of the effort to strengthen its presence on the island, Taipei has built a 1,200-meter-long airstrip, a port, an antenna tower on the island, and a number of logistic and communication facilities.

Despite its efforts to secure the island, Taiwan is still at a disadvantage because Vietnam and the Philippines are geographically much closer to Taiping. In addition, the island lacks a sufficient Taiwanese military garrison; Taiwan withdrew marines in 1999 due to budget constraints and currently has around 100 coast guard personnel on the island with four coast guard ships patrolling it. This lack of defensive capabilities has made the island vulnerable to potential incursions from neighboring countries, particularly amid the present competition for influence in the South China Sea.

Taiwan claims almost the entire South China Sea Basin as its territorial waters and was the earliest of the existing claimant countries to occupy the island, but Taipei has not done much to protect its sovereignty in recent years. Since tensions began increasing in 2009, Taipei's response to territorial challenges has been muted, consisting mainly of lodging diplomatic protests, issuing rhetorical claims of sovereignty and conducting low-profile military exercises.

Recently, Taiwan has considered the reintroduction of armed forces on the occupied islands and other measures to defend against foreign encroachment, but Taipei's moves have been less forceful than its competitors. Comparatively, Vietnam has been taking advantage of its location and its upgraded military assets to challenge Taiwan on Taiping and the other Taiwan-controlled island in the South China Sea, Tungsha Island. Meanwhile, the Philippines also accelerated steps for upgrading the military garrisons on the islands it controls, including nearby Thitu (Zhongye) Island.

Taiwan's Shift in Focus

Since Taiwan became the seat of the nationalist government in 1949, its primary defensive concern has been mainland China. This is still the case, though as Taipei's posture toward Beijing has become less overtly hostile in the past decade, Taiwan's focus has gradually shifted to also include maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

China's view of Taiwan is not of a sovereign, independent nation but of a disobedient province that will eventually be subsumed by the mainland. Still, because Beijing agrees with Taipei's claims that the South China Sea is rightly Chinese territory (its dispute is which government is the legitimate Chinese government), it clearly does not want to see Taiwan lose control over the islands it occupies. The inadequacy of Taiwan's defensive measures only adds to this concern. In the event of a crisis, such as Vietnam or the Philippines forcibly taking over Taiping Island, China would see this as an opportunity to intervene to protect what it views as Chinese territory, even if the island is controlled by Taiwan.

Beijing believes its position is strengthened by the fact that Taiwan has never been a legal stakeholder in the key international platforms regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Even under previous Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) administrations the sovereignty issue has not been named an essential element in cross-strait sovereignty disputes. (The DDP is the main opposition party and has advocated official Taiwanese independence from mainland China.)

Beijing usually avoids commenting on Taiwanese rhetoric about the South China Sea and in some sense perceives that Taipei's steps to secure the island, if enacted, could in turn bolster Beijing's claims over Taiping by virtue of Beijing's claims over Taiwan. Moreover, it has repeatedly called on Taipei to consider cooperation in the South China Sea. Amid the incursions by Vietnam, the concept of cooperation has again been raised.

For Taipei, the consensus with Beijing on South China Sea claims could ensure it will not have to deal with competition from the mainland on Taiping Island and makes assistance from Beijing in a time of crisis possible if needed. However, any cooperation with Beijing does not play well in Taiwanese domestic politics and could make Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's administration look subordinate to Beijing on the maritime issue. Since direct intervention by Beijing could destabilize Taipei's government and complicate cross-strait relations, Beijing has to manage the issue at a limited level and avoid taking an aggressive stance in pressuring Taipei to cooperate.

Any possible moves on cooperation between Taipei and Beijing on maritime issues will be viewed warily by Washington, which perceives the competition over the South China Sea as a gateway for its East Asia re-engagement strategy to counter growing Chinese influence in the region. Since enacting the strategy under the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, the United States has accelerated its plan to improve relations with several claimant countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Even though the United States is Taiwan's main ally, Washington has little interest in directly intervening in maritime disputes between Taiwan and the other claimant countries, given their importance for the U.S. re-engagement strategy.

Because it does not want to become directly involved, Washington may believe its best option is to equip Taiwan to handle maritime territorial disputes on its own. Taiwan will use the recent Vietnamese incursions to justify enhancing its maritime defensive capabilities. This will likely include a demand that the United States complete the sale of military equipment originally proposed during the 1990s, including more advanced versions of the F-16 jet and maritime vessels — a move that had previously been halted by Beijing's objections. Taiwan has little leverage to use against the United States but maintaining Taipei's confidence is important to Washington, given that the Strait of Taiwan and South China Sea are important for controlling maritime shipping lanes, a key pillar of U.S. global power. Still, Washington has to carefully weigh the arms sales to avoid upsetting its relations with both mainland China and Taiwan as well as its other Pacific allies in the same disputed waters.

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