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A slippery slope. The Dongsha Incident – A bad omen of Chinese moves to marginalize Taiwan

This article was written in collaboration with Dean Karalekas. Dean is the Associate Editor of Strategic Vision for Taiwan Security, published by the Taiwan Center for Security Studies. His research interests include military sociology, emergency management, Asia-Pacific security, and nation-building and identity.

On October 17, 2020, a routine resupply flight from Taiwan’s southern port city of Kaohsiung to the Taipei-controlled offshore island of Dongsha (called Pratas Island in English) was warned off by Hong Kong air traffic control, who cited “dangerous activities” happening 26,000 feet below. Deciding caution was the better part of valour, the captain turned the flight around and returned to Taiwan.

This seemingly mundane incident is nonetheless a notable warning sign of two very important trends taking place in the region. The first, that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is effectively calling the shots in Hong Kong — wresting political control over even so innocuous a field as air traffic control — is just the latest sign that Beijing has fully reneged on its treaty obligation to safeguard the autonomy of the former British colony for a period of 50 years following the 1997 handover.

The second trend this event highlights is that the PRC has now set its sights on seizing Taiwan using many of the same techniques it used to wrest control over the entire South China Sea (SCS), right under the noses of the international community. As such, the incident should have received more attention globally. As amply indicated by the slow, steady rate at which Beijing salami-sliced its way to controlling the SCS even as the world watched, the new target is Taiwan, and the Dongsha incident is merely the latest in a series of miniscule steps—none of which alone rises to the level of casus belli — by which the PRC aims to complete its manifest destiny and defeat its erstwhile enemy the Republic of China (ROC), and finally unite its “renegade province” with the glorious Middle Kingdom.  

In the near future, analysts would do well to watch for similar incidents, such as a repeat of this event but over Taiping (Itu Aba) Island, the largest maritime feature in the South China Sea and one controlled by Taipei, as well as continued breaches of the median line between Taiwan and China by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, which have exploded in frequency over the past few months.

To Taipei, these recent events envisage a political nightmare to come. Ever since the ROC, under the command of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, occupied Taiping Island in 1947 as a means of ensuring ROC rights over that area, the Taiwanese political elite has been unable to definitively answer the question: what do we do if it is attacked? Given the size and proficiency of the PLA today, a military assault on Taiping would be over quickly, perhaps too quickly for Taipei to respond effectively, and practically speaking, it would be nigh impossible to dislodge an occupying force once such a fait accompli is accomplished. Doubt remains as to whether the Taiwanese people would support the spilling of blood and treasure over so small and unproductive a territorial holding so far from Taiwan’s shores. Besides, the outlying islands are strategically best conceptualized as a trip-wire of sorts, the natural first strike of a PLA move against Taiwan itself, and hence an early warning providing time to batten down the hatches and prepare for defence against invasion.

Were a robust defence of Dongsha or Taiping even feasible, such a demonstration of Taiwanese assertiveness in the South China Sea would demand the support of a concomitant political edifice, which sadly has not existed historically, there being no fertile political ground in Taipei to grow one.

Part of the reason for the lack of consensus on the importance of the outlying islands are the different governing paradigms in Taiwan. Some sectors within the Kuomintang (KMT) still possess a “land-oriented mentality” inherited from the Chinese tradition that the “blues” are always very keen to evoke. As a result, this terrestrial mentality tends to make the KMT more sensitive to — and assertive in defense of — territorial claims. From an IR perspective, they could be said to operate essentially from a realist sovereignty perspective.

Indeed, the blues could be said to share a closer worldview with their counterparts in Beijing than they do their political opponents in Taiwan. It is not just a coincidence that the ROC claims mirror almost exactly the PRC claims: the latter literally inherited them from the former, right down to the infamous nine-dash line.

On the other hand, the other dominant paradigm in Taiwan is represented politically by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), or the “greens”, who always tend to walk in a different direction to mark a contrast between them and the former dictatorial KMT. Whereas the KMT foresee an eventual unification with China, the DPP prefer the question to be settled peacefully, and by the people of Taiwan. In terms of their prosecution of the ROC Constitution’s territorial claims over SCS (and other) islands, the DPP has tended to tout environmental and humanitarian issues, in an attempt to erect a framework under which various claimants can work together peacefully on issues of common interest. For example, the military and national assets, including the roughly 200 servicemen, stationed on Taiping are deployed to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HA/DR) as well as environmental research and monitoring.

To be fair, much of these policy differences are stereotypes, and reflected, if at all, primarily in the rhetoric, rather than in action. The practical differences between the current DDP government’s management of the islands issue and that of the previous KMT government is marginal at best, perhaps reflecting a desire on the part of President Tsai Ing-wen not to rock the boat. For evidence, view the wording of the 2012 East China Sea Peace Initiative promulgated by then KMT President (and staunch defender of ROC claims over the Senkaku / Diaouyutai Islands) Ma Ying-jeou.

If anything, this policy unity paints Taiwan in general as one of the rare parties to the maritime disputes that is interested in creating a climate of peace in the region. Certainly the DPP has leaned in to this peacemaker role with its “Mr. Nice Guy” approach. As a result, Taipei has few overt opponents among the other claimants due to its focus on environmentalism and other issues of collective interest.

With this background, should the PRC attempt a more full-hearted attempt to block Taiwanese assets from performing the usual supply runs to Dongsha, or even to Taiping Island, both the KMT and DPP would be between a rock and a hard place, and be forced to compromise some of their most defining political ideologies, diluting their appeal to their respective bases among the Taiwanese electorate.

For example, would a DPP administration rush to deploy troops to defend a territory in the SCS that means little to green voters, but which is important to the KMT’s conceptualisation of the ROC? Likewise, how far would a KMT administration go to resist forming a unified “Chinese” stance on the SCS claims, especially given the aforementioned similarity and common provenance of the ROC and PRC claims? Although former President Ma Ying-jeou resisted just such attempts from Beijing, there is no guarantee a future KMT administration would be as stalwart. Even less certain is how other Southeast Asian maritime claimants to SCS features, such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and The Philippines, would react to overt ROC assertiveness against Chinese aggression? To be sure, such a move would benefit their own claims, but coming out and openly mouthing words of support for Taiwan in such a scenario would incur the wrath of China, ostensibly on “One-China policy” grounds.

And then there’s Washington. While the United States is loathe to allow China to annex Taiwan and allow the PLA free reign up to the Second Island Chain, from a shorter-term perspective, it also doesn’t want to see the situation deteriorate into an overt military stance by Taiwan, just to forestall an eventual Chinese blockade of ROC maritime holdings in the South China Sea. On paper at least, US leaders would suborn a firm Taiwanese response in the South China Sea; one that would be in line with the American perspective to counter what Washington understands to be acts of bullying by Beijing. In practice, Washington continues to hope for a quiet continuance of the status quo — even if that status quo is slowly but inexorably shifting in China’s favour. As such, US military support continues to be predicated on the concept of strategic ambiguity — all the more ambiguous when talking about defending the ROC’s outlying islands rather than Taiwan itself.

Moreover, despite assurances in the Taiwan Relations Act that America would come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of an unprovoked attack (though “unprovoked” is a thorny concept in our post-truth world) by the PLA, Washington would likely have to begin by building a “coalition of the willing” among the countries with a stake in the South China Sea, as well as staunch US allies Japan and Australia. Given the economic and diplomatic leverage that the Chinese enjoy at this moment in the region, coupled with the typical ASEAN hesitation to take a clear-cut position (much less action) on any geopolitical issue, this coalition-building scenario is highly improbable.

In all the hypothetical scenarios examined, China enjoys a favourable strategic position. Obviously, most of the possibilities discussed are more directly related to events happening around Taiping, the largest and most strategically important island in the SCS and one that would demand a response from all other SCS claimants, and the United States alike. Would such a hubbub materialize over a PLA move on the tiny Pratas Islands, however? It seems unlikely, and therein lies the danger of the salami slicing strategy.

The Dongsha Islands are administered as part of the Cijin District of Taiwan’s second-largest city, Kaohsiung, but they are also claimed by China. They lie 310 kilometres southeast of Hong Kong and about 440 kilometres southwest of Kaohsiung. These distances make any scenario there essentially a Taiwanese problem, as there are no other features nearby involving the interests of other claimants, unlike the overlapping, competing claims in the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Taipei is acutely aware of the effectiveness of China’s salami slicing strategy — far more so than the rest of the international community. This is why the Dongsha incident, which may seem innocuous on its face, struck such alarm bells in Taipei and among certain of the more knowledgeable halls in Washington, DC. It is for this reason that the Tsai administration reacted so quickly to not let the incident stand. On 20 October, mere days after the incident, Deputy Chief of the General Staff Li Ting-sheng, accompanied by a delegation of ROC Coast Guard officers, landed on Dongsha Island aboard a C-130 military cargo plane. According to a report released by the ROC Ministry of Defense, Li inspected military facilities and gave a pep talk to the troops stationed there. The lieutenant-general also gave instructions to conduct joint intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance, and combat readiness missions — a clear message that Taipei exerts undisputed control over Dongsha.

To keep it that way, however, Taipei and Washington — as well as the capitals in the region — must be cognizant of the fact that Beijing has now set its sights on annexing Taiwan using the techniques it employed so effectively in the South China Sea. US military and policy leaders, along with their Taiwanese counterparts, must develop contingencies for similar moves against ROC territories, so that Beijing knows in no uncertain terms what it can expect to get away with, and — more importantly — what it can’t.

Picture credits: Taiwan Water Resources Bureau

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