Taiwan is planning an unusual military drill in the contested South China Sea to show its rivals and major world powers that it wants to ease a festering six-way maritime dispute rather than inflame it.
The coast guard and navy will hold a search-and-rescue exercise near Taiping Island, a Taiwan-held feature also known as Itu Aba. They will practice helping, for example, sailors battered in a storm and needing shelter. The drill in the Spratly archipelago advances Taiwan’s efforts since 2015 to be seen as a humanitarian player in an otherwise fractious dispute centered on how to accommodate China’s quick expansion.
“Taiwan has long been trying to frame itself as a regional peacemaker in the South China Sea dispute,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the Taipei-based South China Sea Think Tank. “Humanitarian and search-and-rescue operations near Itu Aba would be a logical next step in backing up that political rhetoric with action.”
Taiwan claims virtually the whole 3.5 million-square-km (1.4 million-square-mile) tropical sea that spans from its south coast to Singapore. China makes the same claim and since 2010 it has stepped up landfilling – an estimated 3,200 acres (1,294 hectares) to date – and militarization of the ocean that’s rich in fisheries and possible fossil fuel reserves.
China’s moves have worried the smaller Southeast Asian claimants: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Because China also claims Taiwan itself and squelches its international diplomatic efforts, the government in Taipei lacks formal relations in Southeast Asia. The search-and-rescue campaign may get attention as a contrast to China's activity in the sea.
The legal basis for Taiwan’s South China Sea claim also took a hit in July when a world arbitration court found that Taiping Island doesn’t qualify for an ocean exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370 km) offshore. The tribunal also rejected China’s “nine-dash line” basis for calling 95 percent of the sea its own.
China and Taiwan cite the same historic records to support their claims. Taiwan’s legal entity, the Republic of China, developed the underlying argument for both when it ruled the mainland. China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of 1940s.
“It’s pretty obvious the world doesn’t really care about Taiwan’s claim to this sovereignty,” said Nathan Liu, an international affairs and diplomacy professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. “And then it would be very difficult for Taiwan to clarify that, because that’s based on the claim Taiwan represents the whole China, so Taiwan is in a very difficult situation right now.”
A search and rescue center
The coast guard-controlled Taiping Island is 1,400 meters (4,593 feet) long by 400 meters wide. It already has an airstrip, a clinic and lodging. Personnel there have rescued seamen from Vietnam, for example, who were hit by storms.
The shift toward building a humanitarian presence for Taiwan began under former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou. He issued a South China Sea peace initiative in 2015 suggesting that the six claimants “shelve sovereignty disputes” and find a way of developing the sea’s resources together.
Current President Tsai Ing-wen directed the coast guard in July to establish Taiping Island as a “humanitarian search and rescue center,” the coast guard said in a statement Sunday. The coast guard is now planning the search-and-rescue drill with an exact date dependent on weather, it said. The agency would not specify a scale, timeline or types of equipment to be used.
Military action would normally anger other claimants, especially Vietnam because its own Spratly holdings are near Taiping Island. Taiwan controls just one other Spratly archipelago feature, an uninhabitable sandbar.
Other claimants are unlikely to react publicly to Taiwan’s search-and-rescue drill, at the risk of appearing to concede sovereignty or upsetting China. But privately they may support it, analysts say, as their sailors someday could need help.
But Taiwan may win favor from its major informal allies, such as Japan and the United States, many of them skeptics of China’s maritime expansion. Washington has asked that the South China Sea claimants strive to get along. Strong ties with world powers give Taiwan recognition it cannot get from diplomacy with its 22 formal allies, which are mostly small and impoverished countries that look to it for aid.
“It’s a way to change the narrative about Taiwan in the South China Sea -- not necessarily with the other claimants, but the narrative will be influenced in places like Washington, Tokyo, Canberra and Brussels,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, an associate researcher specialized in international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan.