How a Crimea-like crisis could easily unfold on islands in the South China Sea

Pratas Dongsha Islands Taiwan South China Sea
The Pratas Islands, known as the Dongsha Islands in Chinese, in July 2008.

  • Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea prompted much international outrage but little meaningful action.
  • Today, a similar scenario could easily unfold in the South China Sea.
  • In this case, China would be the aggressor, while Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands, which Beijing also claims, are the potential targets.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine prompted much international outrage but little meaningful action. President Vladimir Putin was able to forcefully redraw his country’s borders, shrugging off the international sanctions that the United States and European Union imposed in response.

Putin’s success augmented “the belief among some that bigger nations can bully smaller ones to get their way,” as US President Barack Obama put it at the time. Given Crimea’s location in a small country – and the complex, often ethnically tinged territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia – the world was not willing to fight for it.

History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes; today, a Crimea-like scenario could easily unfold in the South China Sea. In this case, China would be the aggressor, while Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands, which Beijing also claims, are the potential targets.

Also known as the Pratas Islands, they have no permanent inhabitants, but they host a detachment of some 500 Taiwanese marines, and are also visited by fishers and researchers. Although the Dongsha are located about 275 miles from Kaohsiung, the municipality in southern Taiwan that administers them, they lie just 170 miles from Hong Kong and are within the city’s airspace, putting them in easy reach of the People’s Liberation Army.

Taiwan Coast Guard Pratas Islands
A Coast Guard member with Republic of China flags after a flag-raising ceremony near the sea shore of Pratas Island, April 11, 2019.

In recent years, Beijing has become more aggressive in the South China Sea, where it maintains expansive maritime claims that are not recognized under international law.

On countless occasions, China’s fleet has harassed, intimidated or even rammed into other countries’ ships in this strategic waterway – including naval vessels, fishing trawlers and oil exploration rigs. The PLA has also built military installations atop reefs and rock formations in the disputed Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.

But unlike those features, which are the subject of numerous overlapping claims and international legal disputes, the status of the Dongsha Islands is a bilateral row between China and Taiwan. This makes it easier for China to attempt a unilateral change to the status quo.

Indeed, throughout 2020 and into 2021, Beijing has stepped up the pace of its military exercises near the Dongsha, prompting Taipei to respond with live-fire drills on the islands, including one earlier this month. As his administration looks to build closer ties with Taiwan, President Joe Biden would be wise to pay close attention to this potential flashpoint.

The Dongsha Islands have long been seen as strategically significant in China, which could use them to control and hinder foreign access to the Bashi Channel, a waterway between Taiwan and the Philippines that Chinese nuclear submarines use to access the Western Pacific Ocean.

Chinese writers and scholars have in recent years made Beijing’s position plain: The Dongsha Islands are necessary to both China’s eventual unification with Taiwan and for Beijing’s broader geopolitical interests.

Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert, put it simply, writing in a recent article for the state tabloid Global Times that the “Dongsha Islands’ location is strategically important as it links the South China Sea and the West Pacific, and if the Taiwan authority lets US military forces deploy facilities in the islands, it would be a major threat to the PLA and the mainland’s security.”

Taiwan China Dongsha Pratas Islands
Atoll National Park in the Dongsha Islands, called Pratas Islands by Taiwan, 150 miles southwest of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, September 15, 2010.

It was thus no surprise when in May 2020, China began planning a massive military drill to simulate taking over the Dongsha Islands, prompting Taiwan to deploy hundreds of reinforcements in response.

For reasons that remain unclear, though, the exercise was apparently canceled at the last minute. Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University of the PLA, was quoted by the Global Times as denying that the drills were ever planned. Still, China’s designs for these islands remain clear.

In 2020 alone, the PLA sent military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone over 300 times, with the intention of “paralyzing Taiwan’s psychology,” as one Taiwanese analyst put it.

Just days after Biden took office, on January 23, China sent eight nuclear-capable bombers and four fighter jets into airspace just southwest of Taiwan, followed the next day by another 16 Chinese military aircraft of various types.

In addition to the islands’ strategic and ideological importance for China, they would require minimal effort to take over.

The impetus for such a move could come from China’s recent efforts to tighten its control over Hong Kong, which have led many pro-democracy lawmakers and members of the political opposition to attempt to flee to Taiwan via the Dongsha Islands. Beijing could at some point try and deny Taiwan access to its own islands, citing the supposed national security risks of this exodus from Hong Kong.

In fact, there is already precedent for this. In October 2020, the Hong Kong government prevented a Taiwanese aircraft from using its airspace to fly to the islands, reportedly due to nearby PLA missile drills. Less than a week later, a senior Taiwanese military officer, Lt. Gen. Li Tingsheng, made a trip to the islands with a delegation of coast guard personnel, sending a clear message of defiance to Beijing.

However, the Dongsha Islands’ presence in Chinese airspace makes fortifying them and maintaining effective control over the territory a much harder and more expensive task for Taiwan. Here, the parallel to Russia’s takeover of Crimea is disturbingly clear, given that the peninsula’s geography – almost completely surrounded by the Black Sea – and proximity to Russia made it difficult for Ukraine to defend.

Taiwan Coast Guard Pratas Dongsha Island
Coast Guard personnel stationed in Pratas Island (Dongsha Island) during routine training, April 10, 2019.

When Putin seized Crimea, the international community responded by isolating Russia and imposing sanctions. Yet despite this pushback, it was clear that the United States, the European Union and the rest of NATO were not going to risk war with Russia over Crimea.

When Ukraine’s then-prime minister visited Washington in mid-March 2014 – less than a month after Russian forces entered Crimea – and requested military assistance, the Pentagon refused, fearing that lethal aid would only escalate the situation. Later that month, Obama told an audience in Brussels that the United States and NATO “did not seek any conflict with Russia,” namely because “there are no easy answers, no military solution.”

Taken in sum, these efforts may have avoided a military confrontation. But they also made it clear to Putin that while he might face some short-term pain, he could redraw Europe’s borders by force without fear of military pushback. And now, some seven years later, it is apparent that he has done just that.

Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to have taken this lesson to heart. Indeed, he appears to have been emboldened by the democratic world’s collective failure to hold Putin to account after the seizure of Crimea. China continues to not only claim nearly the entire South China Sea, but physically fortify its islands there, prompting, again, “only muted response from the international community,” as US Air Force Capt. David Geaney put it in a recent op-ed.

If Xi believes he can get away with militarizing disputed land features in the South China Sea – and with sinking and harassing neighbors’ vessels there, as he has so far – he may very well see the Dongsha Islands as ripe for the taking.

In the event of such aggression, the rest of the world would be wise to bear in mind the lessons of Crimea. If the architects and most fervent supporters of the rules-based international order – namely, the United States, the EU, Japan and others – again fail to defend the victims of outright aggression and annexation, this time off China’s coast, the attractiveness and validity of that order will only further decline, as it has since 2014.

The United States and its partners cannot expect countries around the world to support and stand by the US-led international order, rather than defect to China’s illiberal vision for the world, if Washington and Brussels do not stand up for smaller countries that are threatened by the bullying behavior of nearby great powers.

In 2014, the international community’s red line should have been Crimea; today, it must be the Dongsha Islands.

Shahn Savino is a program analyst with VTG, a defense contractor. He is a member of the Black China Caucus and the National Association for Black Engagement with Asia. Follow him on Twitter @ShahnMarc.

Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at the LSE IDEAS think tank and a contributing editor of American Purpose, Francis Fukuyama’s new magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesDunst.

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