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Cheng-yi Lin 97
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Taiwan's South China Sea Policy

- by Cheng-yi Lin, Academia Sinica, Taiwan -

Taiwan and Potential Military Conflicts in the South China Sea

Rapid economic growth and uncertainty over the shape of the regional order are two factors that have prompted an increase in defense acquisitions among the Spratly Islands' claimants. With the exception of Vietnam and the Philippines, the claimants are trying to build up a strong submarine force. And with China and Vietnam getting Su-27s, Malaysia MiG-29s and F-18s, and Taiwan F-16 A/Bs and Mirage 2000-5s, the Philippines is giving top priority to modernizing its air force rather than its navy. Although the base levels of the ASEAN forces are low, Taiwan-held Taiping Island could be threatened as their military modernization programs take root. Taipei believes that any South China Sea conflict, whether between China and the ASEAN claimants or among the ASEAN claimants themselves, would have a serious impact on ASEAN solidarity. Thailand and Singapore are not directly involved in the sovereignty dispute but they have to be careful not to offend either China or their fellow ASEAN members. At the first China and ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) in April 1995, ASEAN SOM Chairman Dato Paduka Lim Jock Seng reiterated ASEAN's "serious concerns that unresolved disputes in the South China Sea could destabilize the region, and urged China to take part in cooperative activities aimed at building confidence and stability in the disputed area."27 However, Singapore, Thailand, and Brunei were not so anxious to join other ASEAN claimants in raising the Spratlys issue collectively at the second ARF meeting the following August. Thailand has proposed a subregional economic grouping in the South China Sea to transform the region into a zone of cooperation while Singapore has called upon the claimants to stop escalating the militarization of the area. ASEAN solidarity would be seriously put to the test if there were more conflicts between its members and China.

Beijing believes that the ARF "is not an appropriate place for discussing this [Spratly] issue," but it has softened its stand and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen announced at the second meeting of the ARF in Brunei that Beijing is ready to work with other claimants "to resolve the dispute on the basis of international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other relevant laws [approved by China's legislature]."28 The establishment of the ARF in 1994 did not prevent China from building a military installation or fishermen's shelter on Mischief Reef. However, the ARF has indicated its concern about security in the South China Sea, and called on all claimants to refrain from taking actions that could destabilize the region, including undermining the freedom of navigation and aviation in the affected area. China will have to be cautious in order not to invite a collective ASEAN and non-ASEAN stand on the South China Sea.

The territorial dispute is also leading to a military buildup in the region. After the Mischief Reef incident, Philippines President Ramos won congressional approval for a 15-year, US$13.2 billion defense modernization program. He further proposed an alliance of medium-weight Asia-Pacific powers, which he implied would include Australia, New Zealand, and the ASEAN states, to counterbalance the region's major powers, the PRC in particular. Malaysia plans to purchase two Assad-class corvettes and five Super Hercules military transport aircraft to boost its rapid-deployment force; Vietnam plans to supplement its acquisition of six Su-27s with a further six aircraft, and Singapore, a non-claimant to the Spratly Islands, decided to acquire a second-hand submarine from Sweden for training purposes. Singapore's four Swedish-designed mine countermeasure vessels were commissioned in October 1995. Military exercises involving the South China Sea states have apparently increased in frequency since the Mischief Reef incident. In July 1995 U.S. Navy commandos conducted a joint training exercise with Philippine Western Command troops; in August the navies of Singapore and Pakistan conducted an exercise in the Singapore Strait and the South China Sea; in September 1995 and 1996, respectively, members of the Five Power Defense Arrangement conducted their annual Starfish exercise; in June 1996 the PRC conducted a naval and air defense exercise in the South China Sea; and in September Indonesia conducted one of the largest combined forces exercises in the area around the Natunas aimed at defending natural gas projects.

Taiwan is not much concerned about an invasion of Taiping Island by the PRC or other claimants. As long as other disputed islands are still occupied by foreign countries, it is unlikely that the PRC would attack Taiping. Beijing has called upon Taipei to undertake joint defense and survey activities in the Spratly Islands and it has offered to provide the Taiping garrison with supplies of desalinated water,29 but unless there is a serious deterioration in cross-strait relations, Beijing could hardly justify taking military action against Taiping. The other claimants are wary of provoking Taiwan's Taiping garrison lest they invite a military reaction from Beijing. But even if Taiwan were not involved, a conflict in the South China Sea would put Taipei in a dilemma because its territorial claims would become unsustainable and it would not know how to react. So Taipei is careful not to get involved in any conflict between China and the ASEAN claimants; for example, Taipei kept silent over the Mischief Reef incident and it welcomed the code of conduct subsequently agreed upon between China and the Philippines.

What concerns Taiwan most is the boarding of Taiwanese fishing boats or merchant vessels in the South China Sea by the PRC's navy or public security police. According to Taiwan's Council of Agriculture, there have been 123 incidents since 1990 of Taiwanese fishing boats being subjected to inspection by China's security police or robbed by Chinese pirates in the South China Sea.30 Such action by the PRC may be regarded either as infringement on freedom of navigation or a demonstration of Beijing's jurisdiction over Taiwan vessels. Beijing is also demonstrating that it can harass Taiwan's merchant fleet if it wants to. Approximately 70% of Taiwan's imports of oil and other raw materials pass through the South China Sea. If Beijing intensified its harassment, Taiwan's economy could easily be choked and Taipei might have to consider countermeasures to break the blockade. Any military conflict in the South China Sea or in the Taiwan Strait would definitely not be in the interests of neighboring countries.


As democratization takes root in Taiwan, the ruling party's South China Sea policy will come under more serious scrutiny and policymaking will be more volatile. The policy will largely remain subtle and ambiguous in the years ahead, as Taiwan does not want to provoke either China or the ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea because it is trying to improve its relations with both. So although Taiwan is in dispute with the Philippines and Vietnam over the Spratlys, these two countries are major recipients of Taipei's foreign aid. Taiwan also seeks cooperation with China in fighting crime, resolving fishing disputes, and joint exploitation of oil resources (though not in waters near the Spratly Islands). Taipei is careful to avoid creating the impression that Chinese on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are natural allies in the South China Sea. Joining forces with Beijing in the South China Sea would reduce Beijing's suspicions that Taipei will invite foreign intervention in the cross-strait issue. However, Taiwan's domestic politics complicate the Spratlys issue and make it difficult for Taipei to collaborate with Beijing in any obvious way. As long as Beijing continues to intimidate Taiwan by such means as missile tests, Taipei will not want to cooperate with it in the South China Sea; by the same token, Taipei would not like to see China become the dominant power in the South China Sea and endanger Taiwan's maritime communications. Taiwan agrees with the spirit of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea, and the 1995 ARF chairman's statement, but Taiwan is excluded from ARF and the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conferences and is therefore unable to contribute actively under these regional frameworks. Politically, Taiwan favors alliance of power in which no single claimant will be able to dictate the term of a Spratly settlement. Economically, Taiwan believes that confidence and security-building measures through joint development of the area would be the most constructive approach to dealing with the dispute under the current of situation. In the meantime, Taipei will probably consolidate its control of Taiping Island and thereby demonstrate that its participation in any settlement indispensable.---Notes:

  1. ASEAN Update, May 1995, p. 1.
  2. Vijay Joshi, "Mainland Says It Owns Spratlys," China Post, July 31, 1995, p. 1.
  3. Zhongguo shibao, April 8, 1995, p. 9; Zhongyang ribao, May 3, 1995, p. 7.
  4. "Stop Forced Inspections," China News, July 19, 1995, p. 1.


ASIAN SURVEY, VOL. XXXVU, NO. 4, APRIL 1997: 336-339