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Mutual defence of the sea is not cross-strait military cooperation
Publication Date : 03-05-2012
Lai Shing-yuan, chairwoman of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), was asked a couple of days ago at the Legislative Yuan if Taiwan would cooperate with the People's Republic of China in the defence of the small archipelagoes in the South China Sea. She said Taiwan would never do so, perhaps to please the Philippines, Vietnam and probably the United States as well. These countries are very concerned about Taiwan ganging up with China to fight another mini-war over the island groups known to be surrounded by rich oil reserves.
Well, tensions are mounting over Scarborough, a reef of the Pratas Islands which Taiwan, China, and the Philippines all claim as their territory. China and the Philippines have had a series of confrontations because of Chinese fishermen operating near Scarborough, and Manila is turning jingoistic, convinced that Uncle Sam will offer support in an armed conflict. Scarborough, known in Chinese as Huangyen-tao, meaning Yellow Crag Island, is near the only habitable island of Pratas where Taiwan has a garrison. Pratas is known as Tungsha Island, where there is Taiwan's only oceanic national park and where the Kaohsiung police are investigating a mysterious theft of 259 gold plaques worth US$50,000 entrusted to the garrison by a shrine dedicated to General Kuan Yu, a sworn brother of Emperor Liu Pei of the Minor Han Dynasty of the Epoch of the Three Kingdoms (A.D. 221-223 ). Almost at the same time, there was a brief encounter between Taiwan and Vietnam off Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratlys which is also garrisoned by Taiwan's Coast Guardsmen.
On the other hand, the Philippines claims sovereignty over what it calls Pag Asa, known as Chungye-tao in Chinese, in the Spratlys where there are a small garrison and about 300 Filipino residents. Pag Asa, under what the Philippines calls the municipality of Kalayaan, will be building a school for dozens of children and a port in addition to current air service for the garrison, which guards a huge airstrip where giant C-130 transports can land and take off. Taiwan, which claims sovereignty over the whole of the Spratly archipelago, is likely to have problems with the Philippines over the new move sooner than later.
Like Taiping, Pag Asa was restored to Taiwan after the World War II. As a matter of fact, it was claimed by the Chinese long before the Republic of China was proclaimed in Nanjing in 1912. There still stands a Buddhist temple on Pag Asa built long ago. The Filipinos first claimed Pag Asa in 1956. In that year, Tomas Cloma led a small band to land at the isle, which he proclaimed the “Free Territory of Freedom Land”, but his ship was later intercepted by the Republic of China Navy and the band was withdrawn. In fact, the islet is named after a warship of the Chinese fleet that landed Marines to reclaim Chungye Island in 1947. In 1974, however, Cloma sold Pag Asa for one peso to Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who subsequently organised the municipality of Kalayaan to continue Manila's claim over the tiny Spratly isle.
Of course, Taiwan won't join China in any armed conflict with Vietnam or the Philippines over the Spratlys or the Pratas. But chances are that Taiwan and China may try to defend their interests and clash with the Vietnamese and the Filipinos at the same time. That shouldn't be considered cooperation across the Taiwan Strait. It's a pity that the chairwoman of the MAC didn't point that out in answering the question at the Legislature.
Taipei doesn't want any confrontation with any nation. All it wants is to shelve the question of sovereignty and jointly tap the resources of the Spratlys and the Pratas. We hope Uncle Sam will call an international conference, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed last year, where the sovereignty dispute can be smoothed out for the benefit of all the countries concerned. A Washington conference on the South China Sea could be arranged easily if the United States persuades China to give up its insistence on non-internationalisation of the issue.