Alert to Outbreak of War Taiwan Is Strengthening Defense Capabilities on Its Largest Island in the South China Sea

Analysts believe Taiwan‘s military has stepped up troop training and increased defensive weapons on the largest natural island in the disputed South China Sea to prepare for any attack from Beijing.

Local media reported that Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-ching told the Legislative Yuan on March 17 that China “has the capability” to launch an attack and wants Taiping Island to be “ready at all times. He was referring to a sparsely populated island in the Spratlys, 1,500 kilometers southwest of Taiwan, which is under dispute by five other governments, including China.

“This clearly signals Taipei’s concern and confronts very seriously the determination, claims and actions of the Chinese authorities in Beijing who intend to seize the island,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, a senior fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation’s Marine Policy Institute.

The fact that China has been sending military aircraft over the tip of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone almost daily since mid-2020 is certainly a wake-up call for Taiwan. Last Friday, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry spotted an unusually high number of 20 aircraft. Over the past decade, China has added hangars and radar systems to its own holdings on seven islands in the Spratly (Spratly) island chain.

Some analysts say Taiping Island (also known as Itu Aba Island) is an outpost because it is only 46 hectares (110 acres) in size and China is more able to take it easily than Taiwan. The tropical island has an airstrip, a pier and a small hospital.

In a special report last month, the Council on Foreign Affairs, a research group, said that in order to “strain and exhaust” Taiwan’s air and sea personnel and “anger” the Taiwanese people, China could “demonstrate its power by invading Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island or another offshore island.”

Beijing, which claims autonomous Taiwan as part of its territory, a legacy of China’s civil war in the 1940s, has not ruled out the use of force to reunify the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwanese have said in government polls that they prefer autonomy to reunification with China. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has refused to make any dialogue conditional on Beijing’s “one-China” principle. The two sides have broken off formal dialogue since 2016.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also claim parts of the South China Sea. Vietnam has also begun reclaiming land on islands it controls in the Spratlys over the past two years out of concern for China, and the Philippines this month asked China to withdraw about 200 fishing boats from the islands. All six sovereign claimants hope to gain access to fishing and undersea fuel resources through this ocean.

Vietnam also watches Taiwan’s development on Taiping Island warily, but it does not see it as a threat.

Beijing cites historical usage records to try to prove China’s sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, or Spratlys, where China’s construction of military infrastructure has alerted other sovereign claimants to the South China Sea. China has the world’s third-largest armed force, and its ships occasionally pass through, or enter, the exclusive economic zones of Southeast Asian countries, thus angering them.

Taiwan last week signed a “memorandum of understanding on maritime patrol cooperation” with the United States, further bolstering its own forces. The two sides said Thursday they will set up a working group to build cooperation and share information. The Taiwan Coast Guard is responsible for guarding Taiping Island.

The U.S. government has sold advanced weapons to Taiwan, giving the U.S. the option of defending Taiwan if attacked. Washington recognizes Beijing diplomatically, but remains Taiwan’s staunchest informal ally. China is unhappy with the U.S. help to Taiwan and condemned last week’s Coast Guard agreement.

“Taiwan is definitely a point between the United States and China, and cross-strait relations are indeed deteriorating,” analyzed Weijie Wang, a Taiwanese analyst and co-founder of a Facebook page discussing international affairs. As for the threat of war, Weijie Wang said, “We are not afraid of war, but we are prepared for it.

China currently has no direct “reason” to attack Taiping Island, Wang said.

China has not said it plans to attack any territory held by Taiwan, and on March 4, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said his government is committed to “the peaceful development of cross-strait relations. Chinese officials are claiming sovereignty over 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometers of sea area based on the boundary line drawn by the Republic of China.

Chiu Chien-min, dean of social sciences at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei, said: “How can they attack Taiping Island? China is doing everything possible to create the impression that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are united against outsiders, including the United States, Vietnam and the Philippines. If they attack, it won’t be Taiping Island.”