Are Taiwan’s New South China Sea Oil Ambitions Too Little Too Late?

Are Taiwan’s New South China Sea Oil Ambitions Too Little Too Late?

A Taiwanese legislator said on August 29 that Taiwan plans to spend more than $100 million to build a dock big enough for warships on Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island) in the disputed and potentially oil rich Spratly islands in the South China Sea (SCS). The island is administered by Taiwan and is the largest of the Spratly Islands and the only one with fresh water.

His comments were made amid continued tensions in the SCS as other claimants, namely the Philippines and Vietnam, strengthen their regional military presence after complaining that China, which claims nearly 90 percent of the SCS, is becoming increasingly aggressive in asserting its own claims. Other rival claimants include Brunei and Malaysia.

The plan submitted to parliament would cost NT$3.37 billion ($112.4 million), the AFP reported. An initial allocation of NT$1.6 billion has already been made in the government’s fiscal 2014 budget for the project, the Taipei Times said.

“National security authorities have decided to expedite the project as the other countries in the region have been increasing their naval and air force deployment in the past few years, further complicating the issue,” Taiwanese Kuomintang legislator and chairman of the National Yuan’s Diplomacy and National Defense Committee Lin Yu-fang said in a statement.

Currently, the pier can only accommodate small patrol boats but Lin said that once it is completed large supply ships and even naval frigates will be able to berth there

He said the new dock will also help facilitate work on a project to extend the island’s 1,150 meter runway, which currently can only accommodate partially loaded C-130H transport aircraft in what he called “extremely good” weather conditions.

The AFP said that all claimants except Brunei have troops based on some part of the archipelago of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, which have a total landmass of less than five square kilometers (two square miles).

Of course all rival nations there, Taiwan included, claim that national sovereignty is at stake but that’s disingenuous. Oil and gas and plenty of it are at stake.

SCS oil estimates vary from a Chinese high estimate of potential oil resources of 213 billion barrels of oil (bbl) to a 1993/1994 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimate of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in the SCS offshore basins at 28 billion bbl.

The USGS says that natural gas is more abundant in the area than oil and estimates that about 60%-70% of the area’s hydrocarbon resources are natural gas with the sum total of discovered reserves and undiscovered resources in SCS offshore basins at 266 Trillion Cubic Feet (Tcf).

Albeit, Taiwan’s recent Spratley island disclosure means that Taipei is now upping its ante in the already hotly contested SCS, something we have reported on extensively in the past year and a half.


As China boxes in the Philippines by maintaining a permanent naval presence in Scarborough shoal since last year and all but annexes Philippine territory and also continues building a new city, Sansha, in the disputed Paracel islands with Vietnam, a mini arms race is underway in the region. Vietnam however is more pragmatic than the Philippines.

While a large number of Filipinos still resent any hint of American military presence on its soil or in Philippine waters for that matter and literally take to the streets in protest, even burning American flags in front of the US embassy in Manila, all the while not appreciating the fact that it’s the US that keeps China on a short leash (at least for the time being) holding it back from further aggression, Vietnam has courted and won over allies within the US Navy. It has also forged an alliance with New Delhi while the Indian navy boasts berthing rights at Vietnamese ports — admirable geopolitical gamesmanship for Hanoi.

Taiwan however is an entirely different story. The island nation of just 23 million seems to be losing its footing. You can sense it on the streets of Taipei. The city has lost its vibrancy in what some here try to describe as an economic phenomenon. The general consensus is that Taipei once rivaled any Chinese city but that was at least a decade ago. Economic power has shifted to the mainland and throngs of young educated Taiwanese have followed, taking their talent and skills with them. Some parts of Taipei seem deserted, some are too quiet and its obvious that something indeed is afoot.

Not only is Beijing winning the war of attrition economically with what it still considers a break away Chinese province but the mainland is also making inroads politically as well. Many feel that Taiwanese President Ying-jeou Ma is weak and too pro-Beijing.

Some however claim that he really has no choice. Any hint of independence is fiercely contested by Beijing while some contend that the noose is tightening and that it’s just matter of time before Beijing accomplishes economically and politically what it could not accomplish military due to the US pledge to protect Taiwan.

Some facts: In 2012 trade between Taiwan and China reached $168.9 billion, making the Middle Kingdom Taiwan’s largest trading partner. In light of mounting economic ties between the two, Taiwan’s parliament issued a draft in April that would allow China to establish representative offices in Taiwan. Taiwan for its part would establish similar offices in China. The backlash however in Taipei was immediate.

At the time Dr. Harsh V. Pant with the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London told Energy Tribune that Beijing clearly wants to enhance economic ties with Taiwan to make a case of reunification as seamless as possible.

In light of this, an argument could be made that Taiwan could better spend its money than building a new dock for its naval ships. On the other hand, some still maintain hope that Taiwan will remain an independent nation even against the Chinese juggernaut.

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