Taiwan said Tuesday it will continue doing "humanitarian" search and rescue work in the South China Sea, where it holds the largest of about 500 tiny islets.
In a statement, the Coast Guard Administration said it will "deepen its cooperation mechanism" with surrounding countries, the agency said.
China, the most powerful claimant to the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that's rich in fisheries and fuel reserves, calls Taiwan its own despite self-rule of some 70 years. Officials in Beijing demand that other countries, including the four Southeast Asian states with competing claims to the sea, avoid any formal relations with Taiwan.
But joint search-and-rescue work, even if not publicly supported by other countries, would give Taiwan a welcome name abroad for cooperation rather than for extending the sovereignty dispute. Taiwan has tried over the past decade to stand out from China, which has bilateral issues with an array of countries, by spreading its culture, disaster relief and economic aid overseas.
"The best way at the moment for us to make entry is truly through humanitarian rescue work," said Huang Chung-ting, a Chinese politics and military affairs assistant research fellow with the Taipei-based policy analysis nonprofit Institute for National Defense and Security Research. "Only under this framework can we possibly raise the odds of South China Sea cooperation with surrounding countries and even the United States."
Taiwan started describing Taiping Island as a search-and-rescue hub for the contested sea's Spratly Islands in 2015. Taiwanese personnel on the island were already helping about 10 boats a year from China or Vietnam, usually during storms, a coast guard official said then.
That year ex-president Ma Ying-jeou called Taiwan a humanitarian player in the sovereignty dispute and urged all claimant countries to share resources. The following year Taiwan's coast guard and navy held search-and-rescue exercises near Taiping Island with the aim of helping sailors from any country as needed.
On Tuesday, the coast guard joined five other Taiwan government agencies for search-and-rescue drills. They simulated the rescue of a fishing boat accident that had killed one and injured five, two seriously. The agencies used four ships, four drones, two planes and a helicopter for the drill, the coast guard statement said.
Taiping Island works as a rescue center because the 400-meter- wide by 1,400-meters-long island supports a 10-bed hospital in addition to an airstrip and a pier.
Taiwan will increase cooperation mainly by rescuing more foreign-registered fishing boats in distress, and those ships are unlikely to refuse help, a coast guard spokesperson said Friday.
Bridging rival claimants
Taiwan already exchanges "intelligence" and scientific research reports with other South China Sea claimants without upsetting China, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University.
The other claimants to all or part of the sea are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. They might help Taiwan's search-and-rescue work, but only quietly or informally, analysts expect.
"In principle, there are both intelligence report exchanges and marine science cooperation, but when it comes to conducting humanitarian drills around Taiping Island, the stances of nearby Southeast Asian counties are unclear because they might be afraid of Beijing's attitude," Huang Kwei-bo said.
A country that helped Taiwan publicly might be seen as conceding its own sovereignty claims to Taiwan and anger China. China controls 90 percent of the sea, much of it by landfilling small islets for military use since 2010. Beijing mutes anger in Southeast Asia by using its massive economy to offer trade and investment benefits.
The United States might back Taiwan's search-and-rescue work, since it has taken other steps under President Donald Trump since 2017 to check China's reach in the sea, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan. Joint humanitarian work moves the maritime dispute "in a direction that Beijing doesn't want to happen," Lin said.
"Of course, the United States would be eager to do something to challenge China," he said. Other countries, he added, are probably "hedging" on how to work with Taiwan.
The U.S. government has taken other steps under President Donald Trump since 2017 to check China's reach in the sea.
On Wednesday the U.S. Navy passed two warships through the strait separating Taiwan from China, the island's defense ministry said. China resents those ship movements, which have become routine over the past year, as intervention in its relations with Taiwan.