South China Sea: Taiwan’s live-fire drills irked Vietnam. Was Beijing the real target?

  • Taiwan’s recent military exercises near Taiping Island, which Vietnam claims, were ‘illegal’ and a ‘serious’ territorial violation, Hanoi fumed
  • But observers say the drills were aimed more at Beijing, as Taipei fears its far-flung islands could be easy pickings for mainland China’s military
Maria Siow

Maria Siow

scmp – Published: 8:30am, 11 Dec, 2022

A Taiwanese patrol boat fires a ship-to-ship missile during a military drill in 2006. Vietnam slammed Taiwan’s recent live-fire exercises near Taiping Island as “illegal”. Photo: AFP

A Taiwanese patrol boat fires a ship-to-ship missile during a military drill in 2006. Vietnam slammed Taiwan’s recent live-fire exercises near Taiping Island as “illegal”. Photo: AFP

Vietnam was quick to voice its displeasure this month at Taiwanese military drills near a South China Sea island that both claim, but analysts say the incident speaks more to Taipei’s anxiety for its outlying islands’ continued security than the state of its relations with Hanoi.

Taiwan’s live-fire exercises on November 29 near Taiping Island, which Hanoi claims as Ba Binh, were “illegal” and amounted to “a serious violation of Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty over the archipelago”, a foreign ministry spokeswoman told reporters on December 2. Later that day, Taipei responded with a foreign ministry statement of its own calling its claim to the island – located more than 1,500km southwest of Taiwan and about 600km southeast of Vietnam – “unquestionable” and Hanoi’s comments “unacceptable”.

From Hanoi’s point of view, the heated exchange was merely “a matter of principle”, said Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow and Vietnam studies programme coordinator at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. A similar denunciation would have been issued against the activities of any rival claimant “be it [mainland] China, Taiwan, Malaysia or even the Philippines, which is considered Vietnam’s de facto ally in the South China Sea dispute”, he said.

Earlier this year, Vietnam and the Philippines both hit out at reports Taiwan planned to extend the 1,150-metre runway on Taiping by a further 350 metres so it could accommodate F-16 fighter jets and P-3C anti-submarine aircraft. Beijing likewise slammed Taipei after the reports emerged in April, accusing it of “playing with fire” and “colluding with external forces in betraying the interests of the Chinese nation”.

Le said the latest live-fire incident was unlikely to raise the temperature much in the South China Sea as “from Hanoi’s perspective, Taiwan does not constitute a major threat to Vietnam’s national security” due to its limited presence and “much less assertive posture” compared to mainland China.

It would be a different story if Beijing and Taipei were to coordinate their South China Sea activities to threaten or challenge Vietnam’s position in the Spratlys, he said, noting however that “such scenarios seem far-fetched” given heightened cross-strait tensions and “Taiwan’s need to win regional support”.

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A ‘potentially high-value target’

The largest of the naturally occurring Spratly Islands, Taiping’s Chinese name is derived from the warship that sailed there in 1946 after the end of World War II. Internationally it’s also known as Itu Aba.

During the war it and much of the South China Sea were controlled by Japan, which renounced its claims to the region following its surrender and since 1956, Taiping Island has been administered by Taipei.

Despite this, Hanoi maintains its claim, as does Beijing and Manila. Taiping, which the Philippines calls Ligao, lies about 450km west of its archipelagic Palawan province. Manila protested live-fire drills Taiwan carried out on Taiping in June, calling them “unlawful” and saying that they had raised South China Sea tensions.

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In 2016, a UN-backed arbitral tribunal in The Hague brought by Manila classified Taiping and all other features in the Spratly archipelago as “rocks”, rather than islands, meaning they were not entitled to their own exclusive economic zones. Both Taipei and Beijing rejected the ruling.

A woman in Beijing walks past a large screen showing a news broadcast about China’s military exercises encircling Taiwan in August. Photo: Getty Images/TNS via AFP

A woman in Beijing walks past a large screen showing a news broadcast about China’s military exercises encircling Taiwan in August. Photo: Getty Images/TNS via AFP

Multiple observers told This Week in Asia that Taiwan’s recent drills around Taiping Island were aimed more at Beijing than other South China Sea claimants such as Vietnam, as Taipei fears its far-flung outlying territories could become easy pickings for mainland China’s military.

“Taiwan-controlled islands in the South China Sea are potentially high value targets” for Beijing because taking them offers the geostrategic advantage of controlling “much of the crucial waterways linking Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia”, said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist with the Australia National University’s Taiwan Studies Programme.

“Specifically, Taiwan is concerned with the low-intensity conflict scenario where Beijing uses force to seize Taiwan’s offshore islands, as a way to test Western resolve and to pressure Taiwan into capitulation,” Sung said.

Huynh Tam Sang, an international-relations lecturer at Vietnam National University, agreed as he said “a quick invasion of Taiping Island is within reach” of mainland China’s military, in contrast to an invasion of Taiwan itself that could result in “unnecessary isolation by the United States and its allies” for Beijing.

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Military strategists, including Taiwan’s own defence establishment, have also raised concerns that in lieu of an outright invasion, Beijing could try to seize Taiwan-controlled islands that are located much closer to mainland China’s coast, such as the Quemoy – also known as Kinmen – and Matsu archipelagos.

In recent months, mainland China has conducted extensive military drills around Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory to be reunited by force if necessary.

After a visit to the self-ruled island by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August, Beijing responded with days of live-fire drills surrounding Taiwan and unprecedented “encirclement patrols” by masses of fighter jets and drones that flew closer to the island than ever before.

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Beijing has fully militarised at least three of the South China Sea islands it controls, a US military commander said in March, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets.

It has built seven artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago and has a further 20 outposts in the Paracel Islands, according to The Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, as well as controlling Scarborough Shoal.

Huynh said Taipei’s diplomatic isolation – it is not a member of the United Nations nor a party to the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – had “constrained Taiwan’s status and maneuverability” when it comes to South China Sea disputes. This had also deprived it of a diplomatic avenue to talk through differences, Sung said.

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