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China’s Aggressive Actions in the South China Sea and Potential Threats to Taiwan

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The Second Thomas Shoal, located 120 miles off the coast of Palawan in the Philippines, is home to the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era landing vessel that serves as an important infrastructure and outpost for the Philippine marines. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled that the shoal belonged to the Philippines and that China had no legal basis to claim historic rights over the majority of the South China Sea.

However, China disregarded the court’s ruling and intensified its efforts to assert control over almost the entire South China Sea. This included the construction of man-made islands with military facilities. China’s coast guard, the largest in the world, became its key tool in reinforcing its claims.

The coast guard ships of China have aggressively confronted Philippine vessels seeking to resupply or repair the Sierra Madre. The Chinese coast guard has rammed, attacked with water cannons, and used other forceful tactics to prevent the Philippines from maintaining the outpost. The Sierra Madre is critical for the Philippines as its deterioration would compromise its hold on the Second Thomas Shoal.

The situation has caught the attention of the United States, which has shown support for the Philippines. President Biden emphasized that the US defense commitment to the Philippines is unwavering and any attack on Filipino personnel or assets would trigger the mutual defense treaty between the two countries.

China’s behavior with its coast guard poses a broader threat. It regularly uses its coast guard to project power and challenge international norms, creating facts on the ground and daring others to push back. There are concerns that China may soon deploy its coast guard to increase pressure on Taiwan, which it aims to bring under its control. The upcoming presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan on January 13 have raised the chances of a tough response from China if the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which sees Taiwan as a de facto sovereign nation, continues to prevail. Even if the more China-friendly Kuomintang wins, it is unlikely to meet Chinese expectations for swift reunification with the mainland.

If Chinese coast guard ships appear around Taiwan, it would create a significant challenge for both Taiwan and the US Navy. The Chinese coast guard, backed by a new Chinese law granting it the authority to use lethal force in claimed waters, can exert pressure without explicitly engaging in military action. This raises questions about how the US and Taiwan would respond in such a situation.

Furthermore, China’s coast guard provides a means for the Chinese Communist Party to deploy other coercive measures in Taiwan. This could include inspections of foreign vessels sailing to Taiwan and imposing customs requirements or flight plan filings under Chinese authority, affecting foreign companies doing business in Taiwan. These actions would undermine Taiwan’s political separation from China and create legal, political, and financial pressures on foreign companies.

China has already been conducting frequent air and naval operations in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, with a record 103 sorties in a single day in September. Incursions have expanded to include Chinese aircraft circumnavigating Taiwan and crossing the informal median line in the Taiwan Strait designed to prevent accidental clashes. China has also challenged US ships in the strait, increasing tensions.

China’s successful “gray zone activities” in the South China Sea may soon require Taiwan’s allies to confront the challenge of effectively countering China’s actions in and around the democratic island.

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