Taiwan is reported to have sent around 200 marines to the Pratas Islands, located in the South China Sea in an area claimed by both Taiwan and China. The move appears to be related to concerns that China is planning a major maritime military exercise later this month, which would include a simulated takeover of Taiwanese-controlled islets.
It is anticipated that the scheduled military exercises, to be carried out by the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command, would be on an unprecedented scale and would involve large numbers of marines, landing ships, hovercraft, and helicopters. There is a possibility that they will be joined by China’s aircraft carriers during an extended deployment on a course that would send them close to Taiwan’s shores, first revealed by a report by Kyodo news agency in Japan on 12 May, and subsequently confirmed by Chinese officials. In the same week the US Navy posted pictures of one of its warships sailing through the sensitive Taiwan Strait for the sixth time this year.
Taiwan News picked up the reports that China is planning on deploying two aircraft carriers in waters near Taiwan as part of its war games scheduled for August to rehearse for a future assault on the Taiwan-controlled Dongsha Islands.
News.com.au had reported that for the first time, both of China’s aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, are being deployed together in Bohai Bay in the Yellow Sea to conduct combat readiness drills. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carriers were said to be engaged in the second week of an 11-week simulated military confrontation that would later extend into the South China Sea.
The South China Morning Post subsequently cited a military source as saying that an aircraft carrier strike group will pass through the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands) on its way to the exercise site to the southeast of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea.
The Pratas Islands, consisting of one island, two coral reefs, and two banks, is located about 445km (275 miles) from Taiwan’s southern port city of Kaohsiung and just over 300km from the Chinese mainland.
The area has been designated a national park because of its coral reefs and seagrass bed ecosystem and has no permanent civilian residents, only a coastguard garrison of roughly the same size as the detachment of marines sent to reinforce them. The island does not appear to have significant defensive positions, so the deployment is little more than a symbolic gesture.
Taiwan’s defence ministry declined to confirm the Kyodo report, but Chief of Joint Operations Lin Wen-huang emphasised in May that the military would continue to strengthen combat readiness and ensure proper preparations on Taiwan’s outlying islands, including the Pratas Islands and Taiping Island.
Taiping is the largest of the Spratly chain, where mainland China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei all have competing claims.
On Tuesday Wang Ting-yu, a legislator from the governing Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan, said some marines had already arrived on the Pratas Islands in June.
Wang, who sits on the foreign and defence committee, did not specify the size of this detachment but stressed they had all “received special training from the US and are capable of carrying out anti-landing and anti-parachute operations against the enemy”.
Wang said Taiwan normally only stationed coastguards instead of regular troops there to ease tensions in the South China Sea. He added that, “The US used to condemn Taiwan if we posted the military on the Pratas and Taiping,” and that Vietnam and other claimants would also complain. “But this time there has been no objection over our posting marines there because they all want to contain China’s military expansion in the region.” LINK
China has suspended official exchanges with Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning DPP was elected president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle. Meanwhile, in a move calculated to offend the Chinese government, earlier this week the US sent the highest official to visit Taiwan since Washington severed diplomatic relations with Taipei in 1979. The Financial Times said on Sunday that while US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar’s visit to Taiwan is a sign of Washington’s strategic shift, it could also put the island nation at greater risk given intensified pressure from China. LINK
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