Taiwan shows off Taiping Island in the South China Sea

Taipei invites journalists to tour disputed island, which is also subject to claims by the Philippines and Vietnam.

Taiping – Taiwan had waited 60 years for this moment.

Our C130 military transport plane had just landed on the tiny island of Taiping, also known as Itu Aba.

Actually it is more a runway than island. Taiping is less than a kilometre long. It had been a four-and-a-half hour, 1,600km journey from the capital Taipei to this distant Taiwanese outpost in the heart of the South China Sea.

But it was worth it.

As I walked down the ramp on to the tarmac I was making history, albeit history with a small “h”. I had become one of the first foreign journalists to set foot on the island since Taiwan began its occupation at the end of World War II.

Sixty years on, Taiwan has been busy cementing its sovereignty. The government had invited this select group to prove that Taiping island was “more than just a rock”.

And in these waters there is an important distinction between rock and island.

Under the outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou, we were told that more than a $100m had been spent on upgrading the runway and port.

A hospital, lighthouse and post office have also been added. We were shown evidence of sustainable life: a small farm with goats and chicks. Some of the chickens were sacrificed for our lunch, washed down with juice from locally-grown coconuts. Falling coconuts and sea snakes pose some of the few dangers to life here – along with boredom.

Power comes from a bank of solar panels and scientists have found a way to produce fresh water.

Chickens are seen at a small farm on Taiping in the South China Sea [Fabian Hamacher/Reuters]
Chickens are seen at a small farm on Taiping in the South China Sea [Fabian Hamacher/Reuters]

The tour group included several government officials, including Bruce Linghu, a deputy foreign minister, who was formerly Taiwan’s ambassador to the Marshall Islands, one of handful of countries to recognise Taiwan.

“I am used to remote islands, which I guess is why I am on this trip,” he joked. But he also had a serious point.

“Taiping is a naturally formed island. It’s’ sustainable, good for the living of the people…It is not a rock,” he said.

It’s a phrase we heard time and again during our visit.

The population is now almost 200: Coastguard personnel mostly, as well as a handful of scientists and medical staff.

Dr Ni Yinghui volunteered to come here for eight weeks.

“[It’s] lonely,” he laughs. “But that is okay. I think two months is a great period. Not too long and not too short.”

Taiping is also claimed by China – which, of course, claims Taiwan – along with Vietnam and the Philippines.

And it’s the latter that has begun making waves in this complex sovereignty battle.

Manila has sought to play down Taiwan’s claim by referring to Taiping island as a rock. Owners of rocks can’t claim rights to surrounding islands, in the way that owners of islands can.

At the moment Taiwan has yet to begin enforcing those rights, but if it does it would effectively be laying claim to waters within Manila’s maritime borders.

Why does any of this matter?

Well, this region is supposedly rich in oil and gas reserves. It also contains some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Last year some $5 trillion of trade passed through these waters.

President Ma, who leaves office in two months, has an eye on his legacy, and pushing Taiwan’s maritime claims is part of that.

At a news conference following our visit, the president focused on what he sees as the factual evidence of Taiwan’s case.

“Taiping is an island as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he said.

A monument reads 'The Republic of China, Spratly Islands, Taiping island' [Fabian Hamacher/Reuters]
A monument reads ‘The Republic of China, Spratly Islands, Taiping island’ [Fabian Hamacher/Reuters]

“In addition to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters, the Republic of China is entitled to claim a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf.”

China’s leaders are hyper-sensitive about sovereignty issues. But oddly enough they have raised no objections to the build-up on Taiping island.

One analyst has suggested there is a simple reason for this. Taiping would become China’s if it ever took Taiwan back.

Also, it is fair to assume that China would rather its Taiwanese compatriots occupy Taiping than the Philippines or Vietnam.

But things could come to a head in a few months – which was another reason for the visit.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague is shortly to rule on a challenge by the Philippines that disputes China’s sovereignty claims. (China has created seven artificial islands, complete with runways in another part of the archipelago.)

That challenge could potentially bring things to a head over Taiping.

The gentle waves lapping the shores of this peaceful place belie the murky politics of an intensifying battle over who really owns these waters.

The aerial view of Taiping Island. The island is also claimed by Philippines and Vietnam [EPA]
The aerial view of Taiping Island. The island is also claimed by Philippines and Vietnam [EPA]
Source: Al Jazeera