Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) confirmed Monday that marines will be deployed to the Dongsha (Pratas) Islands on a “training mission.”
The move comes ahead of Chinese military drills designed to simulate a takeover of the Taiwan-controlled islands, which sit in the South China Sea, around 400 kilometers away from Taiwan’s southernmost point, Cape Eluanbi.
Japan’s Kyodo News reported May 12 that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was planning the drills in the South China Sea on an “unprecedented scale,” using a large number of marines, landing ships, hovercraft, and helicopters to simulate a takeover of the islands as early as July or August this year.
Although the drills had been unannounced by China at the time, on the day following the Kyodo report, Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times warned that the military drills could easily turn into an actual invasion, of Dongsha, the Penghu Islands, or even Taiwan itself.
Kyodo pointed out that the Dongsha Islands are significant to Beijing as they sit at a strategic point between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. China’s warships have to sail by the islands via the Bashi Channel to gain access to the Pacific Ocean. This includes submarines and other warships stationed on Hainan Island, and China’s two operational aircraft carriers.
The Chinese military drills will see an aircraft carrier strike group passing through the Pratas Islands on its way to an exercise site southeast of Taiwan in the Philippine sea, according to an unnamed military insider quoted by South China Morning Post, May 24.
The South China Morning Post downplayed the threat of the drills. “PLA drill in South China Sea about combat readiness, not seizing Taiwanese islands, experts say,” read the SCMP headline.
“There are just 200 Taiwanese troops stationed on the Pratas, so it doesn’t make sense for the PLA to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group to take such a small island,” SCMP quoted their source as saying.
But Taiwan is not taking the threat lightly. Major-General Lin Wen-huang (林文皇), Chief of Joint Operations, said that the MND is monitoring movements of hostile forces through intelligence and surveillance, and made clear that the MND has contingency plans in place in the South China Sea on both Taiping Island and the Dongsha Islands, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, May 12.
On the same day, Global Times reported a Chinese military expert expressing the strategic importance of the Dongsha Islands to the PRC. “If Taiwan authorities lease the Dongsha Islands to the US military for them to deploy intelligence-gathering or anti-submarine equipment, this could be dangerous to the PLA, Song Zhong-ping told Global Times.
“Landing missions have been regular training subjects of the PLA. Island takeover trainings like these are literally aimed at islands, like the Dongsha Islands, Penghu Islands and the larger island, namely Taiwan Island. If Taiwan secessionists insist on secession, military exercises can turn into action any time,” Song said.
Hints that Taiwan would reinforce its contingent of 200 lightly-armed Coast Guard personnel stationed on the island came Saturday, after President Tsai Ing-wen went to Pingtung County to visit a Marine Corps command center and asked the commander to take good care of the officers and men on Dongsha Island, and to complete training tasks as scheduled.
The MND confirmed the transfer of troops in a press release Monday. Marine Corps would be sent for “short term training programs.” The first unit to deploy to the island is the 99th Brigade under command of Deputy Brigade Commander Lin Jiahong, reported United Daily News
The exact number of troops, length of stay, and details of armaments have not been disclosed.
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