TAIPING ISLAND—Taiwan flew international media to its largest island holding in the South China Sea on Wednesday in a bid to reinforce its territorial claims in the disputed and increasingly tense region.
Deputy Foreign Minister Bruce Linghu, who led the trip, said he wanted to show that Taiping is an island capable of sustaining human habitation, and not simply a “rock” as the Philippines claims in a case brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Islands are entitled to territorial waters, an exclusive economic zone and other rights not enjoyed by mere rocks.
Two dozen journalists were flown to the island aboard a Taiwanese air force C-130 transport plane that landed on an airstrip guarded by coast guard sentries with rifles. They were shown the island’s post office and its fresh water well, and were to visit the harbor and a traditional Chinese temple.
The Philippines and Vietnam also claim Taiping. Critics say Manila is seeking to have Taiping designated a rock to avoid having to share an exclusive economic zone with its own nearby island of Palawan.
The Philippines “distorted the facts and misinterpreted the law” in its arguments, Linghu told reporters at a pre-trip briefing Tuesday in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital.
Manila’s case, which has been rejected by China, aims to challenge Beijing’s blanket claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. Yet it threatens also to harm relations between the Philippines and fellow pro-U.S. democracy Taiwan.
Taiwan, which lacks diplomatic ties to negotiate with the five other governments with territorial claims in the South China Sea, has increasingly turned to public diplomacy to reinforce its own claims.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeo paid a visit to Taiping in late January, drawing rare criticism from the United States, Taiwan’s key ally, which has urged all parties to avoid steps that might raise tensions. Although Taiwan’s claim to almost the entire region overlaps with China’s, Ma has sought to cast Taiwan as a peaceful, humanitarian player in the region.
Taiwan operates a 10-bed hospital, a lighthouse and a fishing industry aid station on 46-hectare (110-acre) Taiping, also known as Itu Aba, which has a population of around 200 mostly coast guard personnel. It is spending more than $100 million to upgrade the island’s airstrip and build a wharf capable of allowing its 3,000-ton coast guard cutters to dock.
Roughly 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) south of Taiwan, Taiping is the largest naturally occurring island in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Islands.
However, it has recently been eclipsed in size by artificial islands China has built by piling sand on top of reefs and shoals, and then constructing housing, ports, airstrips and other infrastructure. The United States and others say Beijing is exacerbating tensions in the strategically vital region, while China accuses the U.S. of militarizing the area by ordering Navy ships to cruise in defiance of Beijing’s claims.
Malaysia and Brunei also say parts of the strategically vital sea belong to them. The dispute now threatens to draw in Indonesia, whose sea border abuts China’s vague, unilaterally declared boundary around the South China Sea known as the nine-dash line.
Indonesia this week detained the eight crew members of a Chinese vessel it said was fishing illegally in its waters, while China says the ship was being “harassed” by an armed Indonesian government boat.
China has demanded the crewmembers’ release and Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the two countries were in “friendly and close contact” over the matter.
“China has already made its position and concern clear that we hope to properly handle this issue through close communication with Indonesia,” Hua told reporters Wednesday at a daily briefing in Beijing.
Asked to comment on the Taiwanese media trip, Hua said China and Taiwan have a common responsibility to “maintain the ancestral property of the Chinese nation,” a reference to Beijing’s insistence that the two remain part of a single Chinese nation despite separating amid civil war in 1949.
While construction work is still underway, China would consider allowing journalists to visit its own Spratly island holdings “when the condition is ripe,” Hua said.
Despite the Taiwanese effort to publicize its own sovereignty claims, Beijing should be generally receptive toward what it sees as a defense of Chinese essential interests, said Tang Yonghong, a professor at Xiamen University’s Institute of Taiwan Studies in eastern China.
“Given that other countries in the region also have territorial claims over the island, the move by the Taiwanese authority is of practical significance,” Tang said.