Taiwan says it won’t militarize island in South China Sea

Special to BenarNews
2022.03.22
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Taiwan says it won’t militarize island in South China Sea A member of the Taiwanese Coast Guard stands guard next to a Taiwanese flag on Itu Aba, which the Taiwanese call Taiping, at the South China Sea, Nov. 29, 2016.
[Reuters]

Taiwan has no intention of militarizing Taiping Island – the biggest island under its control in the South China Sea – Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-Cheng said Tuesday.

Chiu was quoted by local media as telling a committee at the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s legislature) that Taiwan “is closely monitoring the militarization of Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea,” after a top U.S. commander said that Beijing has fully militarized at least three such islands.

U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John C. Aquilino said that the construction of missile arsenals, aircraft hangars, radar systems and other military facilities at Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross "appeared to have been completed."

The three reefs are located in close proximity to Taiping, also known as Itu Aba, which the Taiwanese nationalists have occupied permanently since 1956.

Aquilino said that the militarized islands “threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace.”

Chiu said Taiwan, as well as Vietnam and the Philippines, two other claimants in the South China Sea which also control some reefs and rocks nearby, are all “closely monitoring China’s military developments.”

The minister, however, denied that Taiwan was also militarizing the Taiping, saying that it is the Coast Guard Administration, and not the Ministry of National Defense, that has a base on the island.

Taiping Island, which was essentially defined as a rock by an international arbitration tribunal in 2016, lies over 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from southern Taiwan. It has its own power station, an airport and a radar station.

The island, also claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam, is served by the coast guard but Taiwan’s military holds regular exercises there.

On March 11, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry issued a statement protesting against the live-fire drills held at an unspecified time at Taiping Island.

“Vietnam resolutely rejects and requires Taiwan not to conduct these illegal drills and not to repeat this violation in the future,” the statement said.

Taipei has not responded to the statement. The Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense has been conducting a series of exercises this month to boost combat readiness as Minister Chiu warned that “there are similarities between the situation in Ukraine and Taiwan.”

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Taiwan Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng speaks at a rank conferral ceremony for military officials from the Army, Navy and Air Force, at the defence ministry in Taipei, Dec. 28, 2021. [Reuters]

‘Face the aggression alone’

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 fueled fears that China might take its own military action against Taiwan, which is a self-governing democracy but regarded by Beijing as a breakaway province to be united with the mainland, by force if necessary.

But in the past month, as Russian forces have struggled to assert control in Ukraine, the focus in Taiwan has shifted somewhat from the question of whether Beijing will take offensive action to whether the international community would come to Taipei’s aid if it did.

A poll published Tuesday found that 59.7 percent of people were worried that, like Ukraine, they would have to face a Chinese invasion all by themselves.

The survey was conducted March 14 and 15 by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (TPOF), a think-tank, with 1,077 respondents aged 20 and above. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Some 56 percent didn’t think the U.S. would join in a war against China if Beijing attacked Taiwan while 35 percent thought the U.S. would join.

They were responding to the question: “In the face of a powerful Russian army, Ukraine is fighting alone. Are you worried that one day Taiwan, like Ukraine, will face a Chinese military action alone?”

More people, however, believed that Japan would help defend Taiwan. The poll found that 49 percent of surveyed people thought Japan would help versus 43 percent who thought Japan would not offer help.

Seventy-eight percent of the respondents said they feared that Taiwan would not be able to defend itself without help from outside.

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People attend a rally against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Taipei, March 13, 2022. [Reuters]

A similar poll by the same organization released just a couple days before Russia’s so-called “special operation,” found that 63 percent of Taiwanese still believed aggressive action by Russia against Ukraine would not lead China to attack Taiwan.

The ongoing war has led many to draw parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan. While analysts generally think that Beijing is keeping the approach of watching the situation before making any decision, the public is getting more worried.

The TPOF poll found that thanks to the war concerns, Taiwanese people now show a greater support for extending the current mandatory four-month conscription.

Seventy-six percent of those polled said the current length should be extended to a year.

Men between the ages of 18 and 36 who were born in Taiwan or who hold a Taiwan passport are obligated to undergo military service.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) said that the war in Ukraine “has impacted the strategic situation in Eurasia and, in turn, the security environment of the Indo-Pacific region,” according to a report by the state news agency CNA.

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