On Wednesday Taiwan gave the first-ever tour of Itu Aba, or Taiping as the Taiwanese call it, to boost their claims to that the tiny (.19 square miles) land mass in the disputed Spratly island chain in the South China Sea is in fact an island, and that it belongs to them.
“We hope that the international community will understand our position in safeguarding our sovereignty in the South China Sea and our effective administration of Taiping Island,” deputy foreign minister Bruce Linghu told the press on the island, according to the AFP.
On Itu Aba, the press a toured coconut plantation, gardens, a well with fresh water, a temple, and a runway as Taiwanese officials tried to demonstrate the land mass could “sustain human habitation or economic life of their own,” which international law requires of land masses categorized as islands.
Proving that Itu Aba is an island in Taiwanese possession would be a huge coup for Taiwan, as international law entitles islands to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, whereas rocks can claim just 12 nautical miles of territorial waters.
However, as with the rest of the South China Sea’s landmasses, several nations lay claims to Itu Aba. The Philippines in particular have contested that Itu Aba is in fact a rock, and not an island.
“Filipino lawyers have provided wrong information misleading the world, so we feel we have to come out to rebuff their claims… We hope journalists can see for themselves that Taiping is an island, not a rock,” Taiwanese President Ma Ing-jeou told the press upon returning to mainland Taiwan.
The press tour on Wednesday echoed an earlier trip made in January by President Ma, which drew protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, and was dubbed “extremely unhelpful” by the US.
The US has sought to unite Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia against China, who have built 2,900 acres of artificial islands in the South China Sea and militarised them in a perceived power play in a shipping lane that $5.3 trillion dollars in trade passes through every year.
Additionally, the claims of other nations to islands and territories off China’s coast prohibit them from possessing the kind of blue water navy Chinese President Xi Jinping aspires to.
In protest, China has rightly pointed out tha Taiwan is neither a member of the United Nations or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), who regulate these disputes.
Currently the Philippines are contesting China’s claims to the disputed islands at the Hague, and a decision is expected by May.
Taiwan’s President Ma addressed the controversy with the Philippines, saying “I, as Republic of China president…formally invite the Philippines government to send a representative or lawyer to visit Taiping Island.”
Itu Aba has about 200 residents, most of whom work for Taiwan’s coast guard.