Tensions in the South China Sea could provide a chance to forge co-operation across the Taiwan Strait, but political trust between Taipei and Beijing should be a pre-condition, say defence experts from the mainland and Taiwan.
Admiral Fei Hung-po, Taiwan's former deputy chief of general staff, said Taiwan's navy and the People's Liberation Army Navy had unintentionally formed a 'tacit understanding' in maritime issues at least two decades ago. But it was still too early for both sides to co-operate due to the lack of cross-strait political trust, he said.
'On the South China Sea issue, the problem is that Taiwan's navy is incapable of defending the islets we control - such as Taiping - in a large military crisis, but the PLA is capable of doing so,' Fei said at the sidelines of a forum in Hong Kong on Tuesday.
'So far what Taiwan can do is stick to our original [neutral] policy, and will not co-operate with the PLA.'
Since 1956, Taiwan has controlled Pratas and Taiping islands, the largest of the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands group, which is also claimed wholly or in part by the mainland, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Taiping, the only islet with fresh water in the archipelago, is seen as a key military strategic and support depot during a military crisis. In 2006, Taiwan built a 1,200-metre airstrip on the islet.
Professor Ni Lexiong, director of a new research centre on sea power and defence policy at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said if Taiping and other islets controlled by Taiwan were invaded by other countries, the PLA Navy 'would absolutely send fleets to protect Taiwan's interests'.
'In maritime issues, Beijing and Taipei share common interests, so the PLA Navy would eagerly co-operate with the Taiwan navy to safeguard our territory,' Ni said.
However, when tension in the South China Sea escalated last month after a stand-off between Beijing and Manila over the Scarborough Shoal - known as Huangyan Island in China and Panatag Shoal in the Philippines - the government of mainland-friendly Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou remained silent.
Tsai Der-sheng, the island's security chief, said Taipei was in a unique position to mediate the dispute, as the Philippines and Vietnam had tried to persuade Taipei not to side with Beijing. Senior Colonel Li Jie of the PLA Navy's Military Academy agreed that cross-strait military co-operation should build on the foundation of political trust.
Otherwise, cross-strait military exchanges and other activities were merely symbolic, he said. 'I hope Ma Ying-jeou will come up with more innovative mainland policies, which should expand from economic and cultural areas to political co-operation after his inauguration for his second-term administration,' Li said.
'On the South and East China Sea issues, people on the mainland and in Taiwan have reached a consensus that the Diaoyu, Spratly and Paracel islands are China's territories.'
Admiral Fei said he witnessed such a change in the political atmosphere. 'When I was the director of Taiwan Naval Combat Department in 1995, our navy got along with the PLA navy in the Taiwan Strait. The 1996 strait missile crisis arose for political reasons,' Fei said.
'On the other hand, what Taiwan has done on Taiping and other islets aims to defend the common interests of Greater China, which is the ideal China that both governments across the Taiwan Strait aspire to achieve in the future.'
Fei said Beijing was capable of resolving its disputes with the Philippines over the South China Sea due to its growing clout in global economic and military affairs.
'I believe the South China Sea issue will have a happy ending because Beijing will not let it escalate into a military conflict, which would only provide the United States with an opportunity to get involved in the South China Sea issue,' he said.