Taiwan's War Plan over the Spratlys - West Philippines' Sea (WPS)

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) reminds all claimants must obey the 200 Nautical Miles Exclusive Economic Zone as each countries are also the signatories of the UNCLOS

The Modern Law International Violators UNCLOS– China and Taiwan (ROC)

While China's state media threatens Vietnam with war and its diplomats warn the United States to keep out of tensions brewing in the South China Sea in the past weeks, another major player in the region - Taiwan - has been standing inconspicuously on the sidelines.

There has been talk in Taiwan, which has its foothold in the resource-rich waters, about deployment of combat troops and allegations that the Kuomintang (KMT) government wants to side with China against its US-backed southern neighbors over the territorial disputes.

Taiwan's Republic of China (ROC) flag flies over two areas in the South China Sea. In the northern part, there are the Dongsha Islands, which in English are commonly called Pratas,

459 Nautical Miles or 850 kilometers southwest of Taipei Taiwan; and there is Taiping Island, or Itu Aba, the largest island in the Spratlys archipelago and the only one with a freshwater supply, about 864 Nautical Miles or 1,600 km southwest from Taiwan proper's most southern tip.

As the People's Republic of China (PRC) claims not only the whole of the ROC as its territory but also views the entire South China Sea as its internal waters, it's almost needless to say that to Beijing, both Taiwan-controlled Dongsha and Taiping are PRC possessions.

Apart from Taipei and Beijing, the Philippines and Vietnam also claim sovereignty over Taiping, whose only occupants are members of Taiwan's coastguard and the Taiwanese staff of a weather station. As competing territorial claims over the area have been made in ever shorter intervals, from earlier this year on, Taiwan's political cast has increasingly been talking about the need to strengthen Taiping's defense.

The punchless coastguard stationed there ought to be replaced by marines and military-grade weapons systems should be deployed in order to deter aggression by the other claimants and to gain a better position in future negotiations, so run demands by lawmakers from the ruling KMT party. In a move obviously going in the same direction, a Taiwan navy fleet in late April stopped by Taiping Island with several fleet officials disembarking for a chat with coastguard officials.

Unsurprisingly, regional media attached importance to the matter, indulging in wild speculation. There were reports on the deployment of Hai-Ou class missile boats, M41A3 Walker Bulldog light tanks, 40mm automatic guns as well as mortars, all of which have not yet been denied by Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND). In mid-June, when tensions between China and Vietnam and the Philippines started becoming particularly worrisome as rhetoric from all sides turned somewhat ugly, the MND felt compelled to deny that it would stage war games in response.

Up to this day, the only Taiwanese measure to strengthen Taiping is that coastguard members have undergone training in defending their positions against assaults and making arrests.

Strategically, pocketing the South China Sea is extremely important, if not crucial, for the PRC. Western military literature has suggested that Chinese President Hu Jintao has spent many sleepless nights as he frets that in the case of an outbreak of conflict with the US,  the US could overnight block sea lines of communication (SLOC) vital to China.

The maritime routes Beijing overwhelmingly depends on to transport raw materials and oil from Africa and the Middle East to feed the Chinese economy precariously all run through waters that the US Navy's firepower can reach relatively easily. There is Naval Support Activity Bahrain, home to US Naval Forces Central Command and United States Fifth Fleet, right in the middle of the Persian Gulf. And there are Sunda and Lombok, belonging to Indonesia, and the Strait of Malacca, in which Singapore is located. Both countries are US allies, with the city-state formally granting the US military access to an air base, a naval base and wharves.

As a boycott of these SLOCs would directly affect China's economic growth, on which the very survival of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) rule depends, it comes as little surprise that Beijing naturally looks for alternative resources. To China's strategic planners, the South China Sea on their doorstep with its estimated 28 billion barrels of oil in addition to natural gas reserves, therefore comes as at least part of the solution.

Only the Philippines and Vietnam have the highest Assurance to control over the disputed Waters - UNCLOS

It is just that Vietnamese and Philippine claims once and for all must be shoved aside in order to give Hu, and certainly even much more so his successors, a good night's sleep.

In terms of Taiwan's role, the indicators are that the island will make for a more useful than hindering factor in Beijing's calculus. Whereas the military deployment on Taiping that KMT lawmakers have been pushing for would lack all meaning militarily, the Taiwanese presence there fits well into Chinese strategic planning.

"In recent years, China has urged Taiwan many times to jointly protect what it calls 'common ancestral rights'. This has openly been promoted by researchers at the People's Liberation Army Academy such as Major General Luo Yuan, the academy's deputy secretary-general", said Wang Jyh-perng, an associate research fellow at the Association for Managing Defense and Strategies and reserve captain of the Taiwan Navy, in an interview with Asia Times Online.

Wang dismissed the notion that military-grade weaponry or marines on Taiping would be of use in deterring Vietnam or the Philippines, the other two claimants.

"Presently, from a purely military perspective, both Vietnam and the Philippines are no match for Taiwan. But its distance to Taiwan proper is farther compared to Vietnam and Philippines, so that the Taiwanese air force would find it difficult providing air superiority support, neither Vietnam nor the Philippines would calculate they can easily put up with a Taiwanese naval task force", Wang said.

In case of conflict, China wouldn't watch idly but would instead jump on the opportunity to come to Taiwan's defense, even uninvited. "China would directly support Taiwan with no prior negotiations needed, for example by providing air support from nearby Hainan Island", Wang said.

Lai I-chung, an executive committee member of the Taiwan Thinktank, a public policy research institution based in Taipei, goes much farther. Whereas Wang brought into account that Beijing invited Taipei to jointly face neighboring nations and would come to Taiwan's help, Lai indicated that the KMT government has long ago made up its mind to side with the Chinese.

"Due to the action Ma Ying-jeou's KMT government took after the Senkaku [called Diaoyutai in Taiwan and Diaoyu island in China] incident in September 2010, and Taiwan's National Security Council saying there is no such thing as sovereignty disputes between Taiwan and China, people are suspecting the move of military deployment on Itu Aba [Taiping] is Taiwan's attempt to flank China toward Vietnam," Lai said.

The Senakaku incident Lai referred to occurred on September 7, 2010 when a Chinese trawler operating in the disputed waters collided with Japanese Coast Guard's patrol boats, first leading to a major Beijing-Tokyo spat and consequently to Tokyo shifting the focus of its defense policy away from Russia toward China.

Lai argued that back then, the Ma administration during the high point of Sino-Japan tensions sent a coastguard fleet to protest against Japan, thereby putting additional pressure on Tokyo as opposed to trying to calm things down. Therefore a military deployment on Taiping now would somewhat resemble that decision, only this time, Hanoi and not Tokyo would be on the receiving end of the joint China-Taiwan effort.

Lai described a pincer movement on Vietnam jointly carried out by Beijing and Taipei and furthermore brought into account that in late 2009 a publication belonging to a KMT think tank had indeed proposed that Taipei should cooperate with Beijing in the South China Sea to pave way for cross-strait military confidence building measures (CBMs). Oil and gas recovery and the joint use of Taiwan's facilities on Taiping island were included among other measures in that proposal.

"Some senior KMT officials believe the South China Sea issue can provide great opportunity to enhance cross-strait relations," Lai said.

He nonetheless acknowledged that for now, Ma wouldn't risk irking Washington by bringing forward cooperation with China in the disputed waters, but "taking Ma's 'cross-strait policy trumps all other foreign policy initiatives' together, it can be seen where the KMT might be heading in South China Sea issue", Lai concluded.

Unconfirmed reports have it that clandestine Beijing-Taipei cooperation on the South China Sea sovereignty dispute may not be historically unprecedented. In the 1970s, KMT's Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek allegedly turned a blind eye on the People's Liberation Army Navy sailing through KMT-controlled waters to seize the Paracels, which were then occupied by South Vietnam.

It is furthermore alleged that even the present-day PRC mainly relies on naval maps drawn up by the KMT government many decades ago when it ruled China as proof that Beijing is the one and only rightful owner of the entire South China Sea.

Yet there are also voices that don't subscribe to the notion that Taipei wants to pocket an extremely significant body of water together with Beijing and would consider military deployment on Taiping island in order to put pressure on other claimants.

Oliver Brauner, a China and security expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told Asia Times Online that although Taiwan has considerable military capabilities, it's not going to use them in disputed waters against Vietnam, the Philippines or whoever.

"As Taiwan's armed forces' main priority is [still] to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, these forces are not easily available for deployment in the South China Sea," Brauner said. He added that for Taipei, defending territorial claims does not seem to be a political priority, except perhaps for a very small portion of an ultra-hawkish KMT-leaning, Chinese nationalist fringe of Taiwanese politics.

"I wouldn't expect any talk by the KMT government about defending these claims as an effort to placate that part of the electorate," Brauner said.

 

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