David An is a Senior Research Fellow at Global Taiwan Institute, and was previously a political military officer at the US State Department.
Maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) have been heating up in recent years. Skirmishes among claimants occur regularly, while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has raised the stakes by building and militarizing islands in the surrounding waters; even the Hague’s Tribunal issued an unprecedented ruling against the PRC’s nine-dashed line claim in July 2016. The oft-tense atmosphere, however, belies a longer history and potentially positive future trajectory for the region. One claimant has a unique and heretofore unleveraged role to play: Taiwan can contribute to maritime peace and cooperation, so it is important to explore its role in the South China Sea, especially its valuable position on Itu Aba (also known as Taiping Island, 太平島) and the Pratas Islands (also known as Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島).
Though it seems like the South China Sea disputes are only recently a headline topic in international news, historically the maritime region has been contentious since at least 1937, when Japan invaded the Pratas Islands, the Spratlys, and Hainan Island to displace France’s Indochina forces in the area. Since then, there have been countless low-level conflicts among fishing vessels, coast guards, and naval vessels from various claimants in the region. For instance, Southwest Cay bizarrely changed hands from the Philippines to Vietnam in 1975, when all Philippine soldiers on the island left momentarily to go to another island for a party and came back to find Vietnam forces occupying the island. Over the last few decades, there has been significant construction on the claimed islands, with Malaysia building on Swallow Reef in 1983, Taiwan on Itu Aba in 2008, and the Philippines with future plans to build on Thitu Island. Starting in 2014, the PRC has significantly built up and armed Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef; but unlike others, Beijing is dramatically adding to the size of the physical land mass by dredging dirt from the ocean floor, rather than modifying existing exposed land.
The stakes are high for the seven claimants—Taiwan, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—since the region has been termed a “second Persian Gulf.” The US Energy Information Agency estimates that the entire area contains 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In addition, 5 trillion US dollars in trade passes through the SCS each year. Any one country dominating this maritime area and denying access to others could block this artery linking East Asia (especially Northeast Asia) to South Asia and the Middle East. There is also the issue of fishing rights, which accounts for 2 -3% of GDP in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
The strategic position of various islands in the South China Sea also makes the area a top national security priority for each of the claimants. Every geographic feature offers the potential for the claimant to project power through a more forward military presence. As an example, the Scarborough Shoal dispute between the PRC and the Philippines—which was the impetus for the Philippines to bring a recent case against China in The Hague—is especially sensitive because the shoal is within 200 miles of the main Philippine island Luzon, which is also within striking distance of several facilities that host American rotational forces. The Philippines could not possibly allow China to build and arm an area so close to its shores.
Each claimant’s island positions are becoming increasingly important as China acts more assertively, even as the legal basis of the PRC’s claims weaken. In July 2016, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration concluded that China’s historical claim to the 9-dash line has no legal basis. The ruling also rebuked China for its construction of artificial islands, through which China has claimed an astounding 2,900 acres of land. In addition to The Hague’s recent legally-binding ruling (enforcement notwithstanding), China ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) in 1996, which defines territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles (nm) from shore, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) up to 200 nm from shore, and high seas beyond 200 nm. UNCLOS allows all countries freedom of navigation in the high seas, which is the legal basis for US air and sea freedom of navigation and surveillance operations in the West Pacific. Essentially, the PRC signed on to UNCLOS two decades ago, precluding China’s “historical” claim to the entire South China Sea, especially since almost all of the area is composed of high seas.
In this context, Taiwan plays a unique role, since it is a trusted partner of the United States and enjoys strong and positive relationships with most SCS claimants. As Ian Easton at the Project 2049 Institute notes, in principle, Taiwan’s territorial holdings in the South China Sea should be viewed by the United States as an asset. Of the seven claimants, Taiwan is the only one that is a stable democracy, and the only US partner that has advanced military capabilities and facilities that could be used to support freedom of navigation operations. Though Taiwan’s Itu Aba and Pratas Islands are not a focal point during times of relative peace, like today, their strategic position in the middle of the South China Sea would play a critical role during a future contingency.
While others are escalating tensions, Taiwan is taking the responsible course of de-escalation in the South China Sea by supporting international norms of peace and cooperation, even though it is not a signatory to UNCLOS and therefore not legally bound by the agreement. In 2000, Taiwan unilaterally replaced its marines on Itu Aba with a coast guard deployment, officially switching control of the island from military to civilian. As a testament to self-restraint, Taiwan’s most powerful weapons on Itu Aba are antiquated Bofors 40 mm guns that have a range of just 10 km, offering just moderate protection against basic maritime threats within its 12 nm territorial waters. In contrast, China’s “large anti-aircraft guns and probable advanced close-in weapons systems” newly placed on their islands—Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef—can theoretically thwart cruise missile attacks, which appear to be fielded in preparation for a possible large scale future conflict. Fortunately, China’s artificial islands are located far from Taiwan at over 1,000 miles away, and therefore do not pose a direct threat to Taiwan; however, they offer China a geographical advantage in projecting military force for a potential maritime conflict scenario against other claimants.
Considering the broad historical context of the past century and recent developments in PRC island building and arming, Taiwan’s centrally located islands in the South China Sea will only grow in strategic importance. In addition, Taiwan’s self-restrained and de-escalatory approach should be applauded by its neighbors for modeling adherence to norms that promote peace and cooperation. Instead of merely talking of harmonious relations and cooperation, Taiwan is actively doing it. Future articles on maritime security will explore ways that Taiwan is currently cooperating with Japan, and what Taiwan can learn from the US’ maritime security capacity building in the region.
Main Point: Taiwan’s Pratas and Itu Aba Islands in the South China Sea should be viewed as an asset by the United States and other regional partners, and its self-restrained, de-escalatory approach to maritime disputes seen as an example for others to emulate in promoting regional peace and cooperation.
 See “Timeline: China’s Maritime Disputes” on linked resource.