Visit to Taiping Island: An Exercise in Wastefulness and Futility

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Why you need to know

A bipartisan group of Taiwanese legislators headed for the South China Sea today to ‘defend’ the nation’s sovereignty. All of this is grandstanding and does nothing to protect Taiwan against external aggression.

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A group of legislators from the ruling and opposition parties on Wednesday hopped onto a C-130 military transport aircraft and landed on Taiping Island (Itu Aba) in the disputed South China Sea to reaffirm Taiwan’s sovereignty claims after a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last week designated the island as a rock, angering Taipei.

The latest visit to the islet was initiated by Kuomintang (KMT) Legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣), who requested that Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense organize the trip after President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) “weak” response to last week’s ruling. Besides the legislators, fishermen from Southern Taiwan have also joined the visit. Legislators Wang Ding-yu (王定宇) and Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政) are representing the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), where Lo also serves as director of international affairs.

Located 1,600 km from Taiwan’s southernmost point, Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island is the largest natural feature in the contested South China Sea. Following the July 12 ruling by the PCA, which Taipei said it did not recognize, Taiwan has dispatched a 1,000-ton Coast Guard vessel as well as a Lafayette Navy ship to the area. The Coast Guard Administration is in charge of defending Taiping Island, which features a pier and a 1,200-meter runway. AAA guns and mortar units constitute the principal armaments on the island.

While it is always encouraging to see bipartisanship occur in Taiwan’s often divided body politics, this high-visibility show of supposed patriotic fervor serves no purpose and only fuels instability with Taiwan’s neighbors while running the risk of angering Taiwan’s ally the U.S. Taiwan’s sovereignty claims to the South China Sea are as antiquated as they are indefensible, and control at best plays a marginal role in ensuring the defense of Taiwan proper. Furthermore, the great majority of Taiwanese could not care less about the island-cum-feature.

And Taiwan proper is what legislators and government officials should be focusing their energies on. What have Chiang, Lo and Wang — all members of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee — and the many others who have made similar visits before them, done to ensure that Taiwan has what it takes to defend itself against external aggression, which will most certainly not come from small claimant countries in the South China Sea? If these legislators are so committed to defending the nation’s sovereignty that they are willing to risk a visit at what the Minister of National Defense, who (rightly) turned down Chiang’s invitation to join, called too “sensitive” a time, then surely they would be spending at least an equal amount of time worrying about the many problems that have plagued the military over the years — force training and preparedness chief among them.

What’s left of the basic military training is for all intents and purposes a joke; the Reserves, which would be activated in a national emergency, are unprepared to counter an amphibious assault by the People’s Liberation Army; most young men in Taiwan still don’t know how to clean, let alone fire, a rifle, and marksmanship is below par; morale is constantly undermined by scandals and vampiric media; recruitment to successfully transition to an all-volunteer military is behind schedule; equipment cannibalism rates are high; combat readiness is below optimal levels.

And yet what do these gentlemen worry about? A piece of rock in the South China Sea.

Of course we all know that the visit had nothing to do with defending Taiwan’s sovereignty and was instead a political stunt, like most previous visits. All of this is for domestic consumption: For Chiang, it was an opportunity to encourage the view that President Tsai is weak on national defense and to pressure her administration; for the green camp, it was damage control to ensure that Chiang and the KMT do not hijack the narrative. For all of them it was a chance to make headlines in international media and to feel “important.”

All of this, however, requires little thought or action. When they come back from their little outing to Taiping Island, we expect every single one of them to roll up his or her sleeves and to start addressing the issues that do have an incidence on the safety of this nation’s 23 million people. And oh boy will that require real (and oftentimes unacknowledged) work.

 

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

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