South China Sea as an Asset or Burden for Taiwan’s Defense?

In his latest piece for Naval Diplomat, James R. Holmes comments on Taiwan’s claim in the South China Sea and particularly focuses on control of Taiping island and concludes bluntly that “only dominant naval and air forces can impart value to Taiping. Beijing could make good use of it; Taipei, not so much.” This is surely something that many in Taiwan would not be very excited to hear. Expert community in Taiwan, quite irrespective of political affiliation, criticizes government for not doing enough whereas Holmes argue that in the absence of credible capabilities it is “better to remain silent than advertise one’s shortcomings.” The shortcomings mentioned here are easy to spot. Taiwan defense planners have their hands full with task of defending Taiwan proper in the face of fast pacing Chinese military modernization.

One could even argue that to commit manpower for defense of Kinmen and Matsu is waste of valuable resources for defense of indefensible territory, in our case islands lying just off the Chinese coast. Potential defense of Taiping would be even more difficult given the sheer distance of 1600 km to Kaohsiung. Although Taiwan’s Navy (ROCN) still remains significant naval force on the paper, its operation around Taiwan and in the South China Sea would be seriously constrained by Chinese Navy (PLAN) and A2AD (Anti-Access, Area Denial) capabilities.

Yet, while Taiping is a burden in terms of defense, it also gives Taipei clear presence in South China Sea, thus making it potentially important player. However, to utilize that, Taiwan’s government should come out with different strategy than to merely reiterate its sovereignty claims over South China Sea. Critics are correct that pushing claim that cannot be backed by capabilities to enforce them, if necessary, does not give Taiwan much credibility. It is typically difficult to back off from sovereignty claims and in case of Taiwan it adds to complexity that these claims are tied to identical Chinese claims, yet, it gives Taiwan a zero benefit to stick to rhetorics that on the surface is not very different from voices heard from Beijing. It is time for some out-of-the-box thinking in Taipei.

2 responses to “South China Sea as an Asset or Burden for Taiwan’s Defense?

  1. How viable would it be for Taiwan to make the use of Taiping Island available to the United States? What if Taiwan offered a lease agreement to the United States?

    • Very, very unlikely under current conditions. For at least two different reasons. First, although such arrangement does not necessarily mean that US would establish formal military base, it would be very difficult for Beijing not to react strongly. I dont say it would invoke Anti-Secession Law, but for some in China it would surely be very close. Second, US simply dont need that, at the moment they maintain base/port rights in Singapore, renewed access to Subic Bay in Philippines and there are rumours of US return to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Additionaly, Taiping would need signiciant investment in its port facility to be able to host US ships. In short, US already have infrastructure in place thal allows it to operate in SCS and benefits of coming to Taiping would not offset its costs for both US and Taiwan.

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