TAIPING ISLAND – Taiwan was seeking to call attention to its South China Sea territorial claims Wednesday with a tour for the international media of its largest island holding. A look at what Taiwan claims, what it controls and how it fits into the increasingly tense dispute over the strategically key region:
TAIWAN'S MAIN OUTPOST
Taiwan's most substantial presence in the South China Sea is Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba, located roughly 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) south of Taiwan. About 46 hectares (110 acres) in size with a population of around 200, mostly military personnel, Taiping is the largest naturally occurring island in the South China Sea's disputed Spratly Island group.
Taiwan operates a 10-bed hospital, a fisherman's aid station, an airstrip and other infrastructure on the island. It says those facilities are primarily aimed at assisting navigation and helping vessels in distress. It is also seeking to make the island environmentally friendly with the use of solar panels to generate electricity, while expanding the harbor to allow 3,000-ton coast guard cutters to dock and upgrade the airstrip.
TAIWAN'S LEGAL CLAIM
Based on a boundary known as the nine-dash line first drawn before China and Taiwan split in 1949, Taipei makes an overlapping claim with Beijing to virtually the entire 3.5 million-square-kilometer (1.4 million-square-mile) South China Sea. The lines are vague and the legal character of the seas within remains ambiguous.
Taiwan's South China Sea claims are often seen as an anomaly resulting from the imposition of the Republic of China constitution on the island after World War II. In contrast to Beijing's increasingly aggressive moves to assert its claims and expand the size of maritime features under its control, Taipei has sought to avoid conflict. However, it has been pushing back against parts of a lawsuit brought by the Philippines challenging China's claim.
The suit seeks to designate Taiping as merely a "rock," rather than an island, and therefore not entitled to territorial waters and other legal rights. Taiwan says that with a fresh water well, airstrip and other infrastructure, Taiping meets the criteria for an island as set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
WHAT TAIWAN CONTROLS
Although it claims the Spratly Islands in their entirety, Taiwan's only other actual holding in the area is a small coral reef called Zhongzhoujiao, located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) east of Taiping. The reef is only partly exposed at high tide and is exclusively populated by sea birds and other wildlife, although observation posts have been built on it and there are plans to construct a lighthouse.
Taiwan also has complete control of the Pratas Islands, which it calls Dongsha, centered on an atoll in the northern section of the South China Sea about 340 kilometers (211 miles) southeast of Hong Kong. Taiwan has designated the area a marine national park, but still operates a small airport there, maintains a garrison and operates a fishing boat aid station. China also claims Pratas, but has made no moves to dislodge the Taiwanese presence.