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Home Editorials of Interest Taipei Times Taiwan Strait: South China Sea 2.0?

Taiwan Strait: South China Sea 2.0?

Given the recent and ongoing tensions between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea, Taiwan should look to its south for the future of its maritime competition with the People’s Republic of China.

Like its claims over Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait, Beijing claims sovereignty over the islands and features within its 10-dash line in the South China Sea. Beijing recently released a new standard map that expands its claims within the region, which has angered Southeast Asian countries. Despite losing a case against the Philippines in 2016 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding its sovereignty claims in the region, Beijing still uses forceful and coercive actions in the South China Sea against other claimants — with the Philippines receiving the brunt of the attention over the past several months.

Throughout this summer, tensions have escalated between the Philippines and China regarding sovereignty in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea. In August, the Chinese Coast Guard was filmed firing a water cannon at Philippine vessels attempting to sail to the Second Thomas Shoal [Renai Shoal, 仁愛暗沙] to resupply troops stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre. The Chinese then attempted to blockade the further resupply of the station, but backed down after the Philippines publicly announced another attempt. To increase publicity of the issue, the Philippine Coast Guard invited journalists to embark on the resupply ships to observe the mission.

After those tensions temporarily dissipated, the Philippines once again publicized another Chinese encroachment last month: the installation of a floating barrier preventing Philippine fishing vessels from accessing a lagoon in the Scarborough Shoal [Huangyan Island, 黃岩島]. The Philippine Coast Guard removed the barrier themselves, with the Philippines promising to continue to remove any future barriers that its military finds. Beyond these two recent flashpoints, Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia vessels regularly scare off Filipino fishermen sailing in the contested waters.

The Chinese resumed their blockade of the Second Thomas Shoal, but once again, early this month, Philippine supply vessels breached the blockade and successfully resupplied the Sierra Madre. Philippine special envoy to China Teodoro Locsin Jr, who served as foreign secretary under former president Rodrigo Duterte, was on board one of these vessels on this mission to personally witness the Chinese aggression and coercion.

All of these actions have taken place in a new political context in the Philippines, one in which President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, has become more vocal in acknowledging the effects and dangers of a cross-strait conflict for the Philippines. A Taiwan crisis even appeared in the country’s 2023-2028 National Security Policy document.

All of these recent events should be studied by policymakers in Taipei. While the South China Sea issue has never completely dissipated, the recent flare-ups in tension and Chinese aggression should provide Taiwan with lessons for what a possible contested future in the Taiwan Strait might look like.

That future might not be too far off either.

Illegal sand dredgers near Matsu have destroyed some of the archipelago’s beaches. In 2020, Taiwan pushed out nearly 4,000 sand dredgers, compared with 600 in 2019. These figures force the Taiwanese coast guard to be vigilant in expelling the illegal vessels from Taiwan’s waters to protect its ecosystem.

More worrying than the sand dredgers was a three-day “special joint patrol and inspection operation” by China’s Fujian Maritime Safety Administration conducted in April in the Taiwan Strait in response to the California-based meeting between then-US House speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). While the operation occurred, Taipei did not report any Chinese vessels stopping any Taiwanese ships.

Taipei firmly opposed the operation and ordered vessels to ignore potential calls for boarding and to alert Taiwan’s coast guard.

The harassment that the Philippines witnesses and experiences every day in the South China Sea could become a reality for Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait. While Taipei regularly faces down military aircraft and naval vessels moving into its air defense identification zone, at this moment it does not face the sort of on-the-sea harassment that Filipinos do.

The Philippines has already lost to China some island features it previously controlled.

In April 2012, Chinese vessels swarmed the Scarborough Shoal, which was then controlled by the Philippines. This resulted in a standoff. To end it, the Philippines and China agreed to demilitarize, but China did not follow through with the agreement, which resulted in China’s occupation of the territory.

Another case is the takeover of Mischief Reef [Meiji Reef, 美濟礁] in 1994. China built structures in the horseshoe-shaped reef. News reports noted that the Philippine military initially dismissed Filipino fishermen’s reports of China’s presence over the reef, only to find out later that structures in the reef, which China claimed as fishermen’s shelters, had indeed been constructed.

China has been constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea for several years. In particular, it has conducted island-building activities in seven Spratly islands [Nansha Islands, 南沙群島], creating about 3,200 acres [1,295 hectares] of new land.

The current Chinese pressure campaign against Taiwan fits into a very different box than the type of harassment that the Philippines faces — for now. Yet that could change as Beijing decides how to change its military pressure against Taiwan as its January elections approach.

While cross-strait tensions are a worrying geopolitical flashpoint, China and Taiwan’s militaries have not experienced the sorts of clashes that the Philippine military and civilians have faced. Adding close-quarters harassment of Taiwanese vessels near Kinmen or Matsu or in the Taiwan Strait would serve as a significant escalation on Beijing’s part. It would demonstrate an expansion of its South China Sea playbook.

While such an escalation is unlikely in the short term, Taiwanese should keep an eye out for how Beijing continues to treat the Philippines in the South China Sea, as that could one day be Taiwan’s future in the Taiwan Strait.

Thomas J. Shattuck is senior program manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, a non-resident research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, and a member of the US-Philippines Next-Generation Leaders in Security Initiative at the Pacific Forum. Robin Michael Garcia, president and chief executive officer of the WR Advisory Group, is an assistant professor in the political economy program at the University of Asia and the Pacific in Manila, Philippines, and a 2023-24 visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.

Source: Taipei Times - Editorials 2023/10/21

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Photo: Lo Pei-der, Taipei Times
Volunteer Kuo Yi-ling cries as she talks about delivering food to former president Chen Shui-bian at the Taipei launch of two books about former president Chen Shui-bian. “Delivering Food to Prison” is a diary by volunteers who deliver meals to Chen, while “A Ray of Light Through the Dark” contains correspondence between volunteers and Chen.Sep 15, 2014

Source: Taipei Times