"There is now a serious possibility that China seeks to occupy one of the outer islands," a Sydney-based defense analyst tells Bloomberg in a new report about Beijing's eyeing Pratas Island in the South China Sea (or Dongsha in Chinese), which though under Taiwan's control actually lies closer to the Chinese mainland and has been long claimed by Beijing.
China's PLA military has lately launched almost daily surveillance flights over or near the disputed atoll, which remains uninhabited except crucially for a small forward base of Taiwanese marines and coast guard officers.
Pratas is back in the spotlight particularly after on Tuesday the PLA flew a record 28 fighter jets into Taiwan's defense identification zone, some of which broke off during the operation and flew near the island, taken in Taipei as another "warning" - also just after President Joe Biden had been at the G7 summit in the UK and then NATO headquarters to shore up support for confronting China especially in the Taiwan Strait.
"China’s warplanes made more incursions into the southern part of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone last year than in the previous five years combined," the Bloomberg report underscores. "While Beijing has blamed the exercises on Tsai’s refusal to accept that both sides belong to 'one China,' the increase has tracked with U.S. efforts to step up arm sales and diplomatic exchanges with Taiwan."
This has resulted in the US responding by upping its own reconnaissance flights monitoring islands off Taiwan, also as others are also deemed under "threat" from the mainland, particularly the Matsu Islands, made up of 19 islands and islets off the southeast coast of China - which are inhabited and also uniquely administratively divided between the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China.
A recent report in Nikkei highlights another 'method' China is using to increasingly try and assert its control over the outlying islands, namely its massive dredging operation. That report describes a small army of dredgers often working under cover of darkness to slowly change the geography of the area in favor of mainland China:
In the darkness, Chinese ships edge closer to Taiwan’s Matsu Islands, at times entering Taiwan-controlled waters. They are not military vessels, but huge sand dredgers that spend hours pumping up tons of sand from the ocean floor. There are so many lit boats they resemble traffic on a highway, and their loud mechanical rumblings echo across the otherwise quiet islands.
Dozens — and at their peak, hundreds — of these 2,000-ton vessels have been making their presence felt in the waters off Matsu. The small islands are part of Taiwan, but much closer to the Chinese mainland than Taipei. Residents say the Chinese sand dredgers have disturbed them, spoiled their coasts, shrunk their beaches and harmed marine life.
And increasing numbers have been observed since last year, sometimes up to 300 or 400 dredgers on a single night, which locals take as "actions that are aimed at wearing down, intimidating or provoking the enemy without firing a single shot."
Taiwan's smaller islands are believed likely to be the first target in any mainland seizure leading to greater potential conflict, this also after earlier this year Beijing officials vowed to take Pratas Island "by 2050" - according to London's The Times.
Upon that threat issued in May, Taiwan's military said it was monitoring "hostile forces" in the South China Sea in preparation to defend the strategic Pratas islands amid nearby provocative Chinese beach landing exercises.
In a likely future scenario whereby China actually moves on one of the Taiwan-controlled islands, the question remains whether the US would get involved militarily.
Considering that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently dubbed China a "top priority" for US national security, it's appearing an increasingly likely scenario.