For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI – The administration of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has been finding itself under pressure lately to give up on its hallmark low-key stance on sovereignty issues in disputed waters. To appease those who want him to be more aggressive, he reportedly plans to extend a runway on Taiping, a Taiwan-controlled island in the South China Sea. If true, the move isn’t too bad an example of political maneuvering.
With its distance of about 500 kilometers to southern Vietnam and 400km to the Philippine island of Palawan, Taiping Island lies right in the middle of the hotly disputed sea, which was recently described by Taipei-based journalist J Michael Cole a piece of “precious real estate” in Taiwan’s hands. Occupied by the
Taiwanese coast guard, it is the largest of the Spratly Islands (Nansha in Chinese) and the only one that comes along with fresh water.
The body of water Taiping occupies the center of is claimed fully by Beijing and Taipei and partially by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, and is believed to hold significant reserves of oil and natural gas, and recently even the magic term “rare earths” has begun popping up in academic papers. But while whoever controls Taiping might not only one day gain economic advantages but also some strategic ones, Taiwan can’t capitalize on it for the time being.
Because of their international isolation, the Taiwanese have little to say in bilateral and multilateral dispute-solving mechanisms. To exploit resources that might or might not be there, they don’t have the technical means mainland China has, such as the brand-new floating oil rig and the Jialong submersible, which made a record 7,000-meter dive last month. And Taipei hardly harbors ambitions to start a military crusade against the South China Sea’s other claimants. As cooperation in disputed waters with Beijing is still far too sensitive a topic to touch for the Ma administration, more than anything, the control of Taiping is merely a burden to the Taiwanese taxpayer.
“It’s not especially strategically significant for Taiwan, since Taiwan lacks the forces to do much with it,” James Holmes, an associate professor at the US Naval War College, said in an interview with Asia Times Online. “Keeping it away from China might even give it negative value for the Taiwanese.”
While the possession of Taiping Island seems a mixed blessing to Taiwan, it is rather obvious that Beijing, which has been making a lot of headlines recently with taking on Manila and Hanoi in the South China Sea and Tokyo in the East China Sea, would value the island more significantly.
However, according to Holmes, it is not so much the South China Sea context in which Taiping would make for a splendid platform for Beijing’s military planners, as “any spot in the South China Sea can be reached from one or another of the coastal states’ shores with relative ease”, but rather the “Malacca Dilemma”. The narrow strait separating Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, all of which are considered friendly to the US, must be sailed through by the container ships carrying raw materials from Africa and the Persian Gulf to feed the Chinese economy, and likewise by vessels bringing Chinese goods to the European and other markets, so that the possibility of a US-imposed blockade of the Malacca Strait is a real nightmare to Beijing.
“As I understand it, Taiping Island is big enough to become a logistical hub; if China gained control of it, that would get the Chinese military about halfway to the Malacca Strait – no small thing,” Holmes said.
Beijing has long urged the Taiwanese to “protect common ancestral rights” jointly, and relatively recently it began to offer also the joint exploitation of the South China Sea’s resources. Beijing likely regards the Taiwanese coast guard on Taiping Island as a useful place holder, and furthermore sees the sovereignty disputes in both the South and East China Seas as tools to make the Taiwanese no longer regard the mainland as the enemy but instead to take on the other claimants, particularly Vietnam and Japan.
To manipulate Taiwanese public opinion and political decision-making, Beijing has been employing its “United Front” apparatus, which relies on local beneficiaries of Beijing’s preferential economic treatment to achieve its political means in Taiwan. Thinly veiled examples of how this goes appeared to have been the recent demand by Chiu Yi, board director of Taiwan’s state-run oil company CPC Corp, that Taiwan and the mainland should jointly exploit the sea environment around Taiping Island. Chiu singled out Vietnam as the “greatest threat”.
Albert Wu, chairman of the Council for Industrial and Commercial Development, a group whose businesses’ aggregated output constitutes more than 48% of Taiwan’s gross domestic product, urged the Ma administration to open Taiping Island to tourism, despite that there arguably wouldn’t be much money to be made, and also an opinion poll jointly conducted by the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times and Taiwanese tycoon Tsai Eng-meng’s China Times is to be seen in this context.
That poll surprised hugely with the finding that 51.1% of the Taiwanese respondents were in favor of cooperating with the mainland against Japan on the Diaoyutai Islands (Senkaku in Japanese), a set of Japan-controlled islands in the East China Sea claimed also by Beijing and Taipei. A total of 41.2% of the Taiwanese even supported use of force, at least according to the unholy cross-strait media pair.
The fact that certain Taiwanese lawmakers have begun pushing hard for the militarization of Taiping Island might also well go into the same direction. A vocal group surrounding Kuomintang legislator Lin Yu-fang has protested numerous times of Vietnamese “incursions”, and called for the deployment of marines on Taiping, as well as that of mortars, surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns, etc.
Non-government organizations too have their prominent role to play in forcing the Ma administration’s hand: In early July, Taiwanese activists belonging to the Baodiao (Defend the Diaoyu Islands) movement sailed to the disputed islands and engaged in a tense standoff with Japanese patrol boats there, while waving not the Taiwanese flag but that of mainland China.
As this incident played out under the watchful eye of the Taiwanese coast guard, which, after having received orders from the government’s highest echelons, has escorted the activists all the way to the Diaoyutai, it somewhat made it look as if Taipei indeed considers siding with Beijing against Tokyo, which all but certainly was precisely the outcome Beijing had envisaged in the first place.
To all appearances, Taipei’s alleged plan to extend the runway on Taiping by 500 meters is a response to the pressure that has been building up. Once the Chinese-language Liberty Times broke the story, it was picked up by foreign wire services and commentators all around the South China Sea. That the reports have been taken seriously by other claimants has become somewhat evident, as Hanoi has since proactively warned Taipei not to carry out the move.
The news on the extension fired up speculations, most notably that the longer runway is meant to facilitate the P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, which Taiwan will take into service next year. The P-3Cs bring along anti-submarine capabilities and could monitor most of the South China Sea.
But pouring cement to make a runway longer – while certain to produce a fair amount of headlines – is not quite the same thing as stationing marines and military-grade weapons.
According to Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, extending the runway does not imply that fixed-wing aircraft will be actually based there. Also, he doesn’t think the alleged plans have to do with Taipei wishing to apply leverage either by way of cross-strait relations of those with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“I have no inside information on why the runway is to be extended,” Tsang said. “But it can be a clever way to strike a balance between meeting the pressure from those who want to see Taiwan’s government taking a more assertive stance over the islets and the sensible policy of not picking a fight with anyone.”
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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