ITU ABA, South China Sea — The largest natural feature of the Spratly Islands, the hotly disputed archipelago in the South China Sea, is a forested, sun-drenched oval of land, cleaved by a single runway that gives the place the appearance of a raw coffee bean floating in bright blue water.
Called Itu Aba, it is occupied not by China, which has aggressively asserted its territorial claims in the sea, but by its archrival, the self-governing democracy of Taiwan.
The two broadly agree that there is a historical Chinese stake in the South China Sea, but they diverge radically over how to exercise stewardship over it.
China has built artificial islands out of the reefs and shoals it controls and, according to analysts poring over satellite photographs, armed them with radars and missiles.
Taiwan, by contrast, is soliciting competitive bids from companies to rebuild its small hospital here, bolstering sorely needed search and rescue facilities in the event of maritime disaster in the heavily trafficked sea.
This “should become a center for humanitarian aid,” the director general of Taiwan’s Coast Guard, Lee Chung-wei, explained during a recent visit to Itu Aba, a mere 110 acres in size.
He was there, accompanied by other officials and a few journalists, to observe a training exercise involving a simulated collision of ships.
“In the case of a real collision, the disaster could be huge and would require a huge amount of medical energy to solve the problem,” Mr. Lee told reporters, “so we are trying to upgrade our capability as much as possible.”
In Chinese, Itu Aba is known as Taiping, which means peaceful or tranquil, which happened to be the name of the warship that landed the first Chinese government official here in 1946. (More on that later.)
Taiwanese sovereignty over the place, which is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, is a matter of national pride. That pride, though, suffered a blow two years ago from which it is still struggling to recover.
An international arbitration panel effectively rebuffed Taiwan’s meticulously crafted argument that this was, in fact, an island under definitions set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The panel, adjudicating a claim brought by the Philippines against China’s claims, declared it a “rock” instead, meaning it cannot sustain human habitation or economic activity. The demotion from being an “island” means that Taiwan can no longer claim exclusive economic control over a wide swath of waters around Itu Aba.
It is, to be sure, a nice “rock.”
On either side of the runway, which was built in 2007 and expanded in 2012, dense growths include banana and coconut trees. Signs along the pathways warn of falling coconuts. The place is teeming with sea birds, and is a nesting ground for green sea turtles.
China’s man-made islands in the Spratly Islands, by contrast, are so new they lack significant vegetation.
Itu Aba has four freshwater wells — part of its claim to “island-ness” — that provide water and nourish small plots that grow vegetables to feed the contingent of 150 to 200 people who live here, most of them from the Coast Guard.
“If Taiping Island is not deemed an island for the purposes of international law, then nothing down there is,” said Margaret K. Lewis, an American professor of law at Seton Hall University who is currently a senior Fulbright scholar in Taiwan. “It has the strongest claim to inhabit human life.”
The Spratly Islands, named after a British whaling captain who recorded them in 1843, comprise more than 100 “islands,” coral reefs and shoals that had no indigenous populations. They lie amid strategically important fisheries and shipping lanes — and, possibly, reserves of oil and natural gas.
They are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and, most recently, Brunei.
The excursion to Itu Aba — a three-hour 20-minute flight from the southern tip of Taiwan — was intended to showcase Taiwanese gentle sovereignty.
Taiwan’s role as a player in the disputes over the South China Sea has been largely overshadowed by China. And Taiwan’s status seems precarious, if not yet directly threatened, despite maintaining its hold for more than seven decades on what was the largest above-water feature before China began its island-building spree in 2013.
The same arbitration case that found Itu Aba to be a mere rock also rejected China’s claims in the Spratly Islands, but China simply declared the arbitration panel’s ruling moot. So did Taiwan, undercutting its own position that it seeks a peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes and a code of conduct that would govern activity in the waters.
“Taiwan has remained a marginal player in the dispute,” said Lynn Kuok of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia in Singapore, who has written on Taiwan’s policy in the South China Sea. “It has been unsuccessful in its attempts to be included in multilateral mechanisms aimed at managing or resolving disputes, such as the ongoing code of conduct negotiations.”
China makes every effort it can to weaken Taiwan’s voice in international affairs generally, arguing that it is part of Chinese territory, though the Communist government in Beijing has never occupied the island.
The claims to the Spratlys predate the civil war that ended with the Communist Party’s triumph and the retreat of the Nationalist forces of the Republic of China to Taiwan in 1949. That, counterintuitively, bolsters China’s claims today.
The “nine-dash line” that China today uses to mark its territory was first on maps drafted in the 1940s by the Nationalist government, led by Chiang Kai-shek.
Despite claims of ancient historical links, Chinese officials in the first half of the 20th century were barely aware of the shoals and cays that make up the Spratlys until France annexed six of them, including Itu Aba, according to Bill Hayton, the author of “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.”
The Japanese seized them from the French in 1938, but then surrendered them after losing World War II. Concrete pilings extending off a white-sand beach — the ruins of a submarine pier — are a relic of Japan’s brief rule.
Two Chinese warships — one called the Taiping — visited Itu Aba in 1946, staking a claim that the Nationalist government held even after fleeing to Taiwan. The Nationalists did not regularly occupy the place until 1956. Beijing’s presence in the Spratly islands came much later.
China, which has steadily built up its military presence in the South China Sea, on Friday announced that it had for the first time landed bombers on another of its territories, Woody Island in the Paracels to the north, prompting a new rebuke from the Pentagon.
Chen Yu-hsing, a senior executive officer with Taiwan’s newly created Ocean Affairs Council, described a different vision for the waters. “We want this to be a peaceful place,” he said during the visit to Itu Aba.
Indeed, this place has been less fiercely contested than others — for example, the Scarborough Shoal, which has been the site of clashes between Chinese and Philippine vessels.
Lt. Chen Jin-min, a young Coast Guard officer, said that most of the activity he and his colleagues encountered in the surrounding waters involved Vietnamese fishermen. A small cay occupied by Vietnam is visible in the distance, roughly seven nautical miles away. Another controlled by China is 12 miles away.
Lieutenant Chen has lived on Itu Aba for a year. While a tropical paradise, there is not much to do except swim or otherwise stay in shape. The housing is spare, but pleasant. There is a temple, a post office and, now, a 4G telephone network, provided by satellite.
When asked what life was like in such a remote outpost, nearly 1,000 miles south of Taiwan, Lieutenant Chen replied simply, “pure.”
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