Taiwan’s coast guard and navy staged a joint humanitarian rescue exercise in waters off Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island on Tuesday, in a move seen by some as a subtle way of asserting sovereignty amid tension in the South China Sea.
Coast Guard Administration Minister Lee Chung-wei said the purpose of Tuesday’s exercise was to show to the world that Taiwan attaches great importance to humanitarian assistance, and that it is committed to resolving South China Sea disputes under the principles of consolidating peace, shelving differences and maintaining navigational freedom and safety.
It is the first time the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen has allowed local and international media to visit the island and report on the joint operation since Tsai took office in May.
It is also the first time an interministerial humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation has been held in waters off Taiping Island, or Itu Aba, the largest naturally formed land feature of the Spratly Archipelago, located some 1,600km south of Taiwan.
The Coast Guard Administration said in a statement that the exercise would help strengthen its capabilities in medical evacuation and maritime search and rescue efforts.
The joint exercise, which involved three aircraft and eight ships, simulated a fire aboard a foreign-flagged cargo ship passing by Taiping Island with injured personnel jumping overboard.
Both Tsai and her predecessor, former President Ma Ying-jeou, have vowed to transform Taiping Island into an international rescue centre.
Since marines were withdrawn from Taiping and replaced by the CGA in 2000, 70 humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions have been conducted, with about 100 lives saved.
Tuesday’s exercise was seen by some as a subtle way of asserting sovereignty over Taiping, which is also claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
While staging a humanitarian rescue exercise might seem “soft”, the navy’s participation was a display of military prowess, said Fan Shih-ping, a political science professor at the National Taiwan Normal University.
Because the Philippines is developing closer relations with China, the United States does not react to the moves Taiwan takes in the South China Sea as strongly as it did when Ma was president, thus making Taiwan an increasingly more important strategic partner to the US and its security ally, Japan, Fan said.
Both the Ma and Tsai administrations organised trips to Taiping Island this year to mark the 70th anniversary of the takeover of Taiping by the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan, after Japan relinquished sovereignty over the extensive Spratly and Paracel groups following the second world war.
Tuesday’s exercise came after Minister of the Interior Yeh Jiunn-rong, CGA Director General Lee Chung-wei and Kaohsiung city officials visited the island in August to underscore Taiwan’s claim to sovereignty and to establish a climate change research base there.
In July, Taiwanese legislators visited the island to again assert sovereignty after an international tribunal ruled that China’s blanket claim to much of the South China Sea had no legal basis and defined the Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island and all other high-tide features in the Spratly chain as “rocks.”
The Tsai administration called the ruling “unacceptable” and said it was “not legally binding on Taiwan,” because Taiwan was never invited to the hearing as a concerned party nor consulted in the arbitration process.