Tiny Island at Center of South China Sea Tussle Seeks Status

  • Taiwan says community of 200 shows Itu Aba can support life
  • 'Happy to play part upholding our nation's sovereignty here'

Taiwan Reinforces Claim to Spratlys

While warships and fishing fleets jockey for dominance of the South China Sea, the 200-odd residents of Itu Aba eke out their days growing vegetables and baking pizza.

With such mundane rituals of daily life, Taiwan sustains a toehold to a strategic struggle that has drawn in the militaries of China and and the U.S. Now, six decades after establishing an outpost on this 510-square-meter (5,500-square-feet) speck of sand, the government in far-off Taipei is seeking to prove it’s an island capable of supporting human life.

Taiwanese soldiers ride past a sign reading "the sovereignty" on Itu Aba

Photographer: Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

"I’m really happy to play a part in upholding our nation’s sovereignty here," said Lin Fang-tzu, 28, who moved the 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from southern Taiwan eight months ago to serve as an anesthesiology nurse at the island’s Nansha Hospital.

The legal status of islands, rocks and reefs scattered across the South China Sea has taken on new significance as the region braces for a ruling from an international tribunal that could upend a complex web of territorial disputes. The United Nation’s Permanent Court of Arbitration could in the next few months decide on claims by the Philippines that the Spratly Islands are uninhabitable rocks and thus don’t confer rights to exploit surrounding resources.

The Philippine case is aimed at China, which has embarked on a large-scale land reclamation program in the waters and built up its military presence. The U.S., which says it doesn’t take sides on individual claims, has sought to assert free navigation rights by sailing warships through the key shipping corridor, drawing protests from China.

Caught in the middle is Itu Aba, or Taiping Island, which is the largest naturally occurring feature in the chain, and Taiwan, whose claims provide the foundation for China’s. The so-called nine-dashed line that Beijing provides to assert sovereignty over more than 80 percent of the sea was drafted by the Republic of China government just before civil war forced it to retreat to Taipei in 1949.

"Legally speaking, both China and Taiwan can ignore, but politically both cannot, because of international publicity and discourse under international law," research fellow Yann-huei Song of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica said by e-mail.

Taiwan has in recent months rushed to prove to the world that Itu Aba, which is dominated by a 1,500-meter (5,000-foot) airstrip, should be considered an island under international law. On Wednesday, Taiwan for the first time allowed journalists to visit the outpost claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Armed Taiwan coast guard members stand around a C-130 transport plane

Photographer: Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

"There’s no need to declare our sovereignty over Taiping Island, we’ve been running it successfully for 60 years," President Ma Ying-jeou told reporters after the trip. "We’re just saying on the issue of whether it’s a rock or an island, at least get the facts straight." Ma, who’s leaving office in May, didn’t accompany them to the island.

Strange-Tasting Coffee

Taiwan, which isn’t recognized as a country, hasn’t been allowed to participate in the Philippine case. China has dismissed the arbitration as "unlawful, unfaithful and unreasonable" and refused to challenge it in court.

As part of his lobbying effort, Ma visited Itu Aba in February to highlight signs of life. Besides a runway and hospital, the island features a wharf, completed in December, and a small solar-power plant. The armed service personnel, health workers and others who live their grow crops such as okra, plantains and papaya. At last count, there were 14 goats.

Lin was one of three nurses who answered Ma’s call this year to move their housing registration to Itu Aba. A key issue under the law is whether the island can produce fresh water -- the food produced there was presented as evidence the sweet, clear liquid flowing from the taps was potable.

"It was amazing to see baking ovens here and we make pizzas and cakes all the time," Lin said. "Sure, the coffee has a strange and interesting flavor. The thing I miss most though is bubble tea."

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