In February of this year, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (SPF)—a nongovernmental think tank based in Washington, DC focused on US-Japan relations—hosted a private tabletop exercise (TTX), codenamed Pacific Trident III, involving teams of former senior government officials and military officers from the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The exercise simulated multiple hypothetical crisis scenarios in the Indo-Pacific region in order to assess how various allied and partner governments could better respond in real life situations. Specifically, the two-day exercise presented an interesting situation that included a military occupation of the Taiwan-administered Pratas Islands (東沙群島) by the Chinese military and a seizure of Taiping Island (太平島) by a combined force of China Coast Guard (CCG) and People’s Armed Police (PAP). The TTX asked participants to role-play different actors that could conceivably be involved in the regional crisis and evaluated their responses. According to the final report of the exercise detailing the scenarios:
A combined China Coast Guard (CCG)/People’s Armed Police (PAP) task force arrived and offloaded 300 policemen with relief supplies for the Taiwanese garrison. The police force closed the C-130 capable airfield to all except Chinese aircraft, and announced the mission was purely humanitarian to assist Taiwanese compatriots in distress.
In a major escalation of its activities in the South China Sea, China also sent forces to seize the Dongsha (Pratas) Islands, three strategically located atolls with a small airfield located 200 nm west of the Luzon Strait. The PLA quickly accomplished this mission without bloodshed. Dongsha has been occupied by Taiwan since the 1950s and unlike other small land features in the South China Sea, it is claimed only by China and Taiwan. In another move directed at a vulnerable Taiwanese-held island, Beijing cut the water supply to two small Taiwan-occupied island groups very close to the Chinese mainland, Kinmen and Mazu [sic].
According to a briefing on the exercise hosted by SPF on June 16, Washington declined Taipei’s initial request to assist it in an immediate military intervention to retake the Taiping Island. At the on-the-record event rolling out the report from TTX, Admiral (ret.) Dennis Blair, who served as the former United States Director of National Intelligence and as the commander of US forces in the Pacific region, explained the context for the US team’s rationale for not supporting Taipei’s request to assist in retaking the features. Blair, who designed the exercise and currently serves as an SPF distinguished senior fellow, stated that US “security guarantee [to Taiwan] is a conditional” and there are “geographic limitations.” That guarantee does not include “new areas” claimed by Taiwan and traditionally in the past did not cover offshore islands, with the possible exception of Penghu (澎湖). Specifically, the retired admiral stated:
The US security guarantee to Taiwan is a conditional guarantee […] [t]here are some geographic limitations. For example, it’s a matter of open policy that the security guarantee does not cover the offshore islands Kinmen and Matsu, but it does cover Penghu, the islands that are much closer to Taiwan […] Those geographic questions have been discussed in American policy, previously. The Taiwanese claimed islands in the South China Sea were a newer area and are not available in openly available US policy. We poked around in policy ambiguity because it can expose some new ideas.
While Taiping Island is around 863.9 nautical miles south of Taiwan, Pratas is only 239.7 nautical miles from Taiwan’s southern metropolis of Kaohsiung and is administered by the city’s Cijin District (旗津). ROC Coast Guard personnel are in fact stationed on both territories.
Shedding light on the US thinking, Kelly Magsamen, a participant on Team USA and the vice president for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, explained Washington’s decision to decline supporting Taipei’s expedition to retake Taiping Island as a move based on a fundamental objective to “deter Beijing from taking further actions against Taiwan.” The former senior NSC official mentioned that the United States wanted to negotiate directly with Beijing to secure the withdrawal of Chinese forces from those islands. This was aimed at controlling any potential escalation—such as Taiwanese military action to retake Taiping—through what she described as “a wider play” to “control the initiative.” This was in reference to other actions taken by the US team—such as inserting a SEAL team—designed to exert pressure in other places to build leverage over Beijing and coerce it into withdrawing from Taiping Island. Other participants from Team USA on the call suggested that the ambiguity in US policy towards Taiwan and the South China Sea at times took decision-makers down different paths, depending on the broad directive from the US president.
One of the participants on Team Taiwan was Admiral (ret.) Lee Hsi-ming (李喜明), who most recently served as chief of the general staff of the Republic of China (ROC) military, before retiring in late 2019. Sharing his personal observation on the exercise—and specifically on the US decision to reject Taipei’s request to retake the island, Admiral Lee stated:
For Taiwan team to deal with Taiping Island is not easy to have so many friendly nations together with us to deal with China. So we [Taiwan Team] wanted to take this opportunity. However, to be very frank, we were always disappointed when we got the answer from the US.
We considered that Taiwan needs to solve two issues. First, […] we needed US support to bring our forces onto the Taiping island. Second, we were acting as a coalition, so we had to respect the US decisions. […] [T]he action that we [coalition forces] took like the joint patrols through the Taiwan strait, showed that China didn’t really take it for certain. The US wanted to maintain the status quo […] Instead this was a good time to create a new status quo and the new status quo could provide benefits to the allied nations.
Other American participants in the exercise suggested that the lack of clarity over the United States’ willingness to go to war over territorial disputes in the South China Sea could be an issue going forward. This ambiguity stands in contrast to its clear commitments elsewhere in East Asia and could potentially limit the actions that the United States may be willing to take in response, in coordination with allies and partners, to Chinese military and gray zone actions in the area. One of the explicit conditions of the exercise for the US is that it included a presidential direction to not get into a war with China over its conflict with Taiwan in the South China Sea given US positions on territorial disputes in the region. Ultimately, the exercise revealed that it may be necessary for the United States to assess what it would be willing to fight for in the South China Sea.
In light of the events of the exercise, the TTX report recommended:
- Expanding Japan’s and South Korea’s mechanisms to consult and coordinate with Taiwan so they resemble the robust connection between the United States and Taiwan. Establish a secure VTC link between the United States and Taiwan that can be used for consultations at all levels and among all national security departments. Ensure that this secure VTC can be expanded to other American strategic partners or allies in the event of crisis or conflict.
- Planning associated with US military options in support of the TRA should recognize the requirement for a rapid expansion of consultative and cooperative mechanisms with Taipei. There has always been a moral hazard that expanded US-Taiwan joint military planning would encourage provocations from China. Clear guidance about the importance of consultation, but the conditional nature of contingency plans, can provide the same benefits without incurring the hazard.
The circumstances presented in the TTX scenario seem to assume that the most plausible motivation for Beijing’s decision to occupy the Taiwan-administered Pratas and Taiping Islands would be a prelude to imminent military actions against the mainland of Taiwan. Indeed, this is how it appears to have been interpreted by Team USA. However, it is worth considering whether the Chinese motivation in a real scenario could be just as much about control of the South China Sea than taking further military action against Taiwan—which could result in direct military conflict with the United States that both Washington and Beijing want to avoid. Indeed, the location of the Pratas Islands could be essential in the longer term for Beijing to control the access points to the vast expanse of the South China Sea, given its central geographic location between the Chinese mainland and the South China Sea.
Since it is in the clear interest of all sides to try to avoid direct military conflict, the Chinese action would likely have taken into account the possibility of a military response from the United States and thus the probability of war should it attack Taiwan. The assumption of the United States that an attack on the mainland of Taiwan may be enough to raise the stakes high enough for Washington to preclude a military response to Beijing’s seizures of those islands may serve its objectives (if Washington is unable to convince or force Beijing to withdraw from those islands) were focused only on preventing that possibility and thereby not countenancing the costs of losing those islands—certainly for Taiwan but also for the broader region as well.
The TTX, which was held in early February 2020, is now being rolled out against the backdrop of intensifying friction in the South China Sea, making the scenarios envisioned by the exercise more than a mere remote possibility. Indeed, in April, Beijing unilaterally expanded administrative controls over the features and islands in the South China Sea, including both Taiping Island and the Pratas. In May, reports emerged that China may soon declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the area covering the Pratas, Paracel, and Spratly islands. Another surge of Chinese military exercises around Taiwan have since occurred, and Taiwan’s defense minister revealed how China may already have established an ADIZ in the South China Sea—although it has not formally declared one. Of particular relevance to the TTX exercise, reports began to emerge in May that the PLA’s Southern Theater Command is planning a beach-landing exercise in the South China Sea in August to simulate a takeover of the Pratas Islands. Ostensibly in response to these reports, Taiwanese marines have been temporarily deployed to the Pratas Islands, a Taiwanese defense official confirmed in late June. It is worth pointing out that Taiwan’s military recalled all soldiers stationed on the main island features it holds in the South China Sea in 2000—Taiping Island and the Pratas Islands—and replaced them with Coast Guard personnel.
As noted by a participant playing Team China during the exercise, any sign of US inaction, such as with Taiwan early in the game, or any hesitation by allied partners will be seen by Beijing as small victories. “We should encourage Tokyo and Seoul to create a political and military network for contingencies [with Taiwan]. In reality, we’ve tried this for many years but never were successful. We need the US to lead in establishing this network,” said Admiral Lee.
The main point: A think tank tabletop exercise has highlighted challenges in responding to Chinese military and gray zone actions in the South China Sea. In response, the recently released report on the exercise calls for expanding military consultations between Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
(The author would like to thank Joseph Ross for his research assistance.)