On Monday, Japan’s Kyodo News Agency published a story in which it claimed China was “expected to carry out a large-scale landing drill aimed at seizing the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea in August.”
This, the paper noted, was “the first time that a person related to the Chinese military acknowledged” the drills, which Kyodo had first reported on in May. The May report cited “sources familiar with the matter.”
However, the Chinese expert Kyodo cited, Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), has now said the paper took his statements out of context. Li told the Global Times later on Monday that the paper of his that Kyodo cited, which was published in the August issue of the Hong Kong-based Bauhinia Magazine, made no claims of certainty about the ostensible drill.
"I did mention a PLA drill aimed at seizing the Dongsha Islands in August, but this was citing the report by Kyodo News in May,” Li said, using the Chinese name for the Pratas Islands. “It's absolutely not a confirmation of their speculation."
As of August 6, no Chinese official has either confirmed or denied whether the rumored drills will take place or have ever been considered.
The Pratas Islands are actually just one above-sea-level island, with two coral reefs and two banks that are part of the same formation. They are about 170 miles southeast of China’s Hong Kong and 275 miles south of Taiwan’s Kaohsiung, in the South China Sea. The island has no permanent residents and is just big enough for a small airfield.
However, it lies along key sea lanes connecting the South China Sea to the East China Sea and Philippine Sea, and the surrounding seafloor is believed to contain petroleum reserves.
Despite Li’s rebuttal of the Kyodo report, the story has continued to spread, feeding war fears in Taiwan, which administers the Pratas Islands.
On Wednesday, the Taipei Times reported the ministry of national defense had sent “no small number” of Taiwanese marines to the islands, based on Kyodo’s reports of imminent PLA drills.
Wang Ting Yu, a member of the Taiwanese parliament from the ruling Democratic Progresssive Party (DPP), told the South China Morning Post on Tuesday that the dispatching of 200 marines to the Pratas had been silently approved of by Washington.
“The US used to condemn Taiwan if we posted the military on the Pratas and Taiping,” Wang said, referring to one of the Spratly Islands, which are many times further from Taiwan than the Pratas. “But this time there has been no objection over our posting marines there because they all want to contain China’s military expansion in the region.”
This comes as Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu fretted publicly last month that with Chinese aircraft flying close to Taiwanese airspace being “virtually a daily occurrence,” China could only be “unceasingly preparing to use force to resolve the Taiwan problem.” It also follows a report by the South China Sea Probing Initiative think tank earlier this week that 67 US spy planes crossed the South China Sea in July, with the bulk of them flying in the northernmost part of the waterway, near Taiwan, Guangdong Province and the Pratas Islands.
As the DPP has taken considerable moves to distance itself from China since coming to power in 2016, and the Trump administration has drawn closer to Taipei in response, the Chinese government has adjusted its posturing to make clear that Taiwanese independence is totally off the table and that it still envisions reunion at some point in the future.
Officially called the Republic of China, Taiwan has been self-ruling since 1949, when the communist Red Army won the civil war on the mainland and established the People’s Republic of China. Each government claims to be the sole legitimate representative of the Chinese nation.
China’s amphibious forces have expanded considerably in recent times. As Sputnik reported in August 2019, the PLA’s marine forces have tripled in size in just a few years, and a new fleet of amphibious assault ships, hovercraft landers and helicopters has provided new means of deploying them. On Wednesday, the PLA’s first Type 075 helicopter landing dock sailed its maiden voyage to test out basic ship functions, as a second continues to be fitted out, and a third is still under construction.