Itu Aba and Pratas in the Shifting Strategic Environment

Itu Aba and Pratas in the Shifting Strategic Environment

Itu Aba and Pratas in the Shifting Strategic Environment

During World War II and the Korean War, General MacArthur famously called Taiwan an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” reflecting its vital geographical importance in support of American interests especially during crises. In a similar sense, Taiwan has its own unsinkable aircraft carriers in the midst of the South China Sea, since it occupies Itu Aba (Taiping Island) in the Spratleys, as well as the Pratas Islands. The former is literally the size of an aircraft carrier, complete with runways, and it happens to be located in the center of the South China Sea, right off the coast of Southern China. The latter is located right in between China and Taiwan the center of the South China Sea. Though the two occupied islands are both in choice locations, their value was overlooked when the South China Sea was much less contentious.

However, Taiwan’s Itu Aba and Pratas Islands will become increasingly valuable as the strategic environment shifts. Taiwan has possessed the naturally-formed Itu Aba Island, also known as Taiping Island, in the Spratlys since 1956. The island used to be the largest among the Spratlys, but it has since been surpassed, as a result of the  PRC’s island building in recent years. Itu Aba currently houses a military garrison, a hospital, and a farm. Taiwan has currently deployed 40mm anti-aircraft artillery, a 120mm mortar, and AT-4 anti-armor rockets at Itu Aba, and is considering additional reinforcements. In addition to military hardware, the islands could be used to house signals information gathering equipment. The valuable role both of these islands could play in the future would be to collect information on aircraft and naval vessel movements in the region, and also to serve as a starting point for force projection. These capabilities that Taiwan possesses could be valuable to the US and its other partners.

Shifting Strategic Environment

The current strategic environment of the South China Sea as understood by American leaders is that of an area with strong regional claims and counterclaims, divided by overlapping dashed lines drawn on maps, which should be periodically challenged using freedom of navigation operations; under this conception, there is currently little room for Taiwan to play a helpful role. As such, the current US policy on the South China Sea stresses “the importance of a cooperative approach to ensuring a peaceful and stable South China Sea, freedoms of navigation and overflight, and claimants exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes.” Such a policy is appropriate for the previous strategic environment, but it is woefully inadequate in the face of growing existential threats against US forces and US allies in the region.

Geographical positions that are neglected during peacetime become more valuable with an aggressive shift in a strategic environment. This is because a shift in the strategic environment means that there has been a major change in the political, military, or social conditions in the region. The US Army’s definition of a shift in the strategic environment is a major change in one or more of the following eight conditions:

  • political
  • military
  • economic
  • social
  • information
  • infrastructure
  • physical environment
  • cultural perception of time as a condition

While the strategic environment in the South China Sea is currently one of maintaining peace and pursuing mutually acceptable compromises, it could quickly become a new strategic environment, with conditions that require deterring and responding to military aggression. Taiwan’s islands could play a more valuable role as tension builds in the region.

Not only do each of the claimants in the dispute hold opposing positions on the South China Sea, but the entire status quo could essentially be disrupted. China is slowly changing the status quo by building and militarizing islands that were not there years ago. If the present, small-scale skirmishes between coast guards, fishing boats, and oil rigs balloon into a larger regional conflict, then we will have transitioned into new status quo. The security environment could shift considerably if interactions between claimants continue to escalate. At stake is not only the potentially energy resource-rich seabeds in the area, but also the immense trade flows that move through the Malacca and Singapore Straits.

Taiwan’s Capabilities Located in the South China Sea

In an area of such importance, where rising powers are building and militarizing islands, the US and its allies need as many partners as they can get. Though Taiwan has been underutilized by the US and its partners in this context, it can be an important partner in the future, through information-gathering and force projection. If tensions in the region continue, Taiwan will shift from relative obscurity on the South China Sea issue into a major player, due to the strategic geographical position of Itu Aba and Pratas islands.

According to Ian Easton at Project 2049:

In principle, Taiwan’s sovereignty claims and territorial holdings in the South China Sea should be viewed by the US as an asset […] In practice, however, the PRC has been able to exploit the fundamentally flawed bilateral relationship between Washington and Taipei to convince many observers that Taiwan has no positive role to play in the dispute.

A key benefit of Taiwan’s position in the South China Sea is information gathering.  Taiwan’s position provides valuable information on the movement of aircraft, surface vessels and possibly sub-surface vessels in that vicinity. “For modern warfare, information is the key to the realm,” as Easton remarked when he spoke at a Global Taiwan Institute public seminar on the South China Sea. Easton further elaborates that Taiwan’s islands in the South China Sea are

…frontline scouting bases, alerting Taiwan’s president and cabinet if the PRC is preparing to attack. Weather stations, radars, listening posts, and patrol crafts on these islands all serve to provide valuable, life-saving information in peacetime, but their most important service is to meet the early warning and intelligence needs of the country.

According to Easton, Pratas Island is in a key location to monitor PLA units which could threaten Taiwan’s security, and these include the PLA’s 124th amphibious mechanized division in Boluo, the 6th Army Aviation Regiment in Foshan, the “South China Sharp Sword” Special Operations Brigade in Guangzhou, and the PLA Navy’s 1st and 164th Marine brigades in Zhanjiang.

Taiwan’s Greater Role in the Future

A key example from history of Taiwan becoming a more valuable partner is during the lead-up to the Korean War. Though Taiwan, as the Republic of China, lost the Chinese Civil War ending in 1949, it soon became an invaluable partner to the US after the onset of the Korean War, when the ROC and the US signed a mutual defense treaty. As the US and South Korea engaged in a proxy war against China and Russia in North Korea, Taiwan found itself with an important role in assisting the US and its allies.  

Though the legal basis of Taiwan’s claim to Itu Aba has been challenged, the reality remains that Taiwan physically holds its islands and they continue to serve important practical functions. July marked the one-year anniversary of when an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, rejecting China’s so-called Nine-Dash line claim over almost the entire South China Sea as having no legal basis. Beijing has rejected the ruling. The Hague ruling also rejected Taiwan’s claim to Itu Aba, and Taiwan likewise reacted against the ruling. This does not change the reality of Taiwan’s operational control of the islands by those Coast Guard personnel physically present on the island, or the fact that they will continue to be useful in a future contingency.

Taiwan is already playing a helpful role by promoting peace in this region. On May 26, 2015, Taiwan proposed the South China Sea Peace Initiative, which led to the Agreement Concerning the Facilitation of Cooperation on Law Enforcement in Fisheries Matters between Taiwan and the Philippines.

The US should anticipate Taiwan’s greater future role in the region and understand the value of such a partnership. The next step for the US to upgrade its partnership with Taiwan in the South China Sea region is to invite Taiwan to join in military exercises, especially the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise as an active participant, or at least as an observer. The US should take concrete steps to work more closely with Taiwan today in anticipation of the future.

Taiwan is underutilized and underappreciated in present circumstances, but its hold on Itu Aba and Pratas will dramatically grow in importance if the region shifts toward greater discord. What seems to be a liability, of maintaining a logistics chain to Taiwan’s islands, which are guarded by Coast Guard and lightly armed, will become invaluable when the informational and operational need arises for such unsinkable aircraft carriers in the region. Taiwan can offer the US maritime domain awareness, which is priceless in the era of modern informationized and joint warfare. Seeing Taiwan as a valuable partner in the South China Sea is thus common sense. Taiwan’s military equipment is already potentially interoperable with the US since most of Taiwan’s advanced weapons are imported from the US and could coordinate and communicate with the US for help during a crisis.  

The main point: Taiwan’s position at Itu Aba in the South China Sea is an overlooked asset that is becoming increasingly valuable as tensions in the region heat up and the strategic environment continues to shift in an aggressive direction.