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    Greater China
     Feb 22, 2008
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Buffer benefits in Spratly initiative
By Cheng-yi Lin

Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian re-ignited passions over the South China Sea's Spratly Islands with his visit to disputed area earlier this month. 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.

Yet his visit was accompanied by proposals for future joint research and other work by the islands' claimants, which, though difficult to implement for diplomatic reasons, underscore an important benefit of Taipei's involvement in the area - it effectively maintains a Taiwan presence between its Southeast Asian maritime neighbors and mainland China.

Neighboring countries, including Vietnam, Taiwan and the PRC

have competing claims over the Xisha (Paracel) Islands in the north of the South China Sea; Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and the PRC have competing claims over the Nansha (Spratly) Islands to the south.
Taiping (Itu Aba) Island - the largest of the Spratlys (0.18 sq miles) and about 1,000 miles southwest of Taiwan - together with the Tungsha (Pratas) Islands - about 260 miles southwest of Taiwan - have been under the control of Taiwan since 1956 with its military presence, facilities and administrative measures to safeguard its territorial claims.

On February 2, President Chen boarded an Air Force C-130 transport plane and - for the first time by a Taiwanese president - landed on Taiping Island, which was followed by a trip to Tungsha Island on February 10, Chen's third such visit since assuming office in 2000. The other claimants to the Spratlys 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 to construct 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.

An airstrip or President Chen?
Taiwan was 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 Yongshu Jiao (Fiery Cross) in 1988.

For several decades, PRC scholars and experts expressed in private 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 with 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 this year. 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.

In 1999-2000, Taipei surprised many countries when it announced that it was downgrading its military presence on Taiping and Pratas Islands [1]. 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, though there are only 10 stationed military troops on its occupied island - in addition to 190 coast guard personnel - compared with 90 for Malaysia, 100 for the Philippines, 600 for the PRC and 2,000 for Vietnam [2]. 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 to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (of which Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei are members) 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 re-examine its apparently misguided policy.

Construction of an airstrip to bolster Taiwan's claim and efficient occupation of Taiping Island 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, although his major focus was not on the South China Sea but on cross-Strait relations with the PRC.

Only after Chen’s re-election 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 concerns 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" [3]. 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 Tungsha Island to charter tourism and made the island the sixth national park of Taiwan in 2007. President Chen visited Tungsha on three occasions, first in December 2000 then in July 2005 and lastly this February. 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."

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-a-vis other ASEAN claimants.

Beijing designated the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in the Chinese island province of 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 the 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 a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, although it was expressed that if the other

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