Confrontation Looms Over Taiwan-Held South China Sea Islands

PLA maneuvers near islands impel Taiwanese Marines to deploy

By: Jens Kastner

Taiwan’s ministry of defense has confirmed that it has redeployed marines to a Taiwanese-controlled set of specks about 170 km southeast of Hong Kong – only one above water – ending 10 years of demilitarization and setting up a possible confrontation with China’s People’s Liberation Army.

The three are a pair of shoals 11 meters underwater and the third, the 240-ha Pratas Island, also known as Dongshan, is just barely above it. The island, in the middle of the route from China’s military base on Hainan Island to the Pacific Ocean, is strategically important for China’s advance into the Pacific Ocean.

China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, was also deployed last December to the Hainan base, increasing pressure on the Chinese military to capture the islets.

A Taiwanese defense department spokesman told local media the deployment, which is expected to only last a short amount of time, is aimed at strengthening the defense capabilities and other logistical and equipment maintenance skills of the Taiwanese Coast Guard officers stationed on the island. The official didn’t reveal the number of Marines deployed, when they arrived on the islands, and how long they will stay.

On the PLA side, the deployment appears extensive, according to a report by the Tokyo-based Kyodo News, which said “The Southern Theater Command, which is in charge of protecting the South China Sea, will mobilize an unprecedented level of forces, including marines, landing ships, hovercrafts and helicopters,” citing anonymous Chinese military sources.

China’s aggressiveness is an increasingly familiar story as it has expanded its defense of its so-called “Nine-Dash Line” ostensibly giving it ownership of the entire South China Sea over the past several years, sparking confrontations with Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, which took China to court in the Hague in 2016 over its claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea. Despite the Philippines winning in court, China refused to recognize the ruling.

An additional rationale for the threat is that the current Taiwanese government under Tsai Ing-wen has shown no inclination to fulfill a tacit placeholder agreement accepted by her predecessor, the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou. Ma indirectly strengthened China’s claims in the region's disputed waters by employing talk of “historic rights” relating to the islands. According to the cross-straits logic of that time, Taiwan is part of China, so their ancestral rights are one and the same.

Speaking to Asia Sentinel, observers on Chinese military affairs shared differing opinions as to how plausible a Chinese attack on Pratas is in the near-to-medium term.

Timothy R. Heath, Senior International Defense Researcher, at the US-based RAND Corporation, argued that the political cost wouldn’t be worth the strategic gain of controlling the island even though militarily it would not be difficult, and control of Pratas would be useful as a strong point along a key shipping lane in the South China Sea and perhaps for deploying sensors to provide maritime awareness.

“An attack would almost definitely end hopes of peaceful unification, as the people of Taiwan would become angered and lack confidence in China as a partner,” Heath said. “An attack would also spark a serious crisis in relations with the US, possibly resulting in a major increase in arms sales and other military assistance to the island. An attack would also probably result in sanctions from key European, Japanese, and other major economies. The net effect could be a serious weakening of an economy that has already suffered from Covid-19 and lasting damage to China’s reputation as an aspiring ‘peaceful’ great power.”

Rick Fisher, Senior Fellow, International Assessment and Strategy Center, sees an attack as more plausible, noting that the Pratas are close enough to China that the PLA could launch assault helicopter formations plus its large Ukrainian "Zubr" hovercraft to land enough troops and light armor to take the island. 

Fisher pointed out that Itu Aba (or Taiping), another Taiwanese-controlled island in the region, is 160 km from the large PLA base at Fiery Cross Reef, plenty close enough for rocket artillery and large helicopter assault strikes.  

“Taking these islands emerges as an option for Beijing because its political, economic and now military pressure against Taiwan have all failed to convince Taiwanese to surrender their freedom,” Fischer said.

“The result would be shock and horror much like we have just seen in India following the June 15 PLA murder of Indian troops,” he added.

Fischer agreed with the notion, however, that in Washington the reaction could be catastrophic for Beijing. 

He says it could be enough for the US to confer diplomatic recognition on Taiwan and offer to revive the old Mutual Defense Treaty, which with mutual agreement, could lead to the rapid redeployment of US nuclear weapons to the island. 

“Xi Jinping would then face horrible options: attack Taiwan and lose his Army and Navy, or attack the United States and lose his country,” Fischer said.

Asked what Chinese public opinion would hold off a PLA attack on Taiwan's Pratas, Steve Tsang, Director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, does not really provide a calmative answer, either.

“The majority who expresses a view would welcome it. Most would probably not care,” Tsang said.