Taiwan bulks up Taiping Island as China looks on
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
2014-05-26 06:18 PM
Taiwan is bulking up the infrastructure on its sole holding in the South China Sea, an isolated outpost that lies more than a thousand miles (1600km) from the southern tip of Taiwan in the Spratly Archipelago. Under construction is a US$100 million port capable of accommodating vessels up to 3,000 tons, while nearby a 1,200-meter (3,940-foot) runway capable of handling C-130 transport planes is being improved.

Taiwan maintains a garrison of about a hundred coast guard and other support personnel on the island, which is called Taiping Island in Chinese and is also known as Itu Aba. Although little more than a speck in the long reaches of the hotly-contested South China Sea, Taiping sports the longer of the Spratly Archipelago’s two runways and has the only supply of fresh water in the area.

Work on the port is scheduled for completion by late next year or earlier, say officials from the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Transportation. It replaces an existing wharf capable of handling only small vessels.

The other runway in the Spratlys is a strip being constructed on reclaimed land at Johnson South Reef by China, a development that is being strongly protested by the Philippines. The project, much more challenging than the Taiping Island runway as it is being carried out on an atoll rather than an island, will give China its first airstrip in the South China Sea.

Unlike other claimants of real estate in the South China Sea, Taiwan is very low-key about its presence in the Spratlys and its activities in the region. The government says the new port is not only intended as a demonstration of Taiwan’s sovereignty in the area, it will also serve to support a trade-dependent economy, offer shelter and rescue services to Taiwan’s deep-sea fishing fleet, and provide assistance as needed to agencies carrying out marine and mineral research nearby.

China has been uncharacteristically quiet about Taiwan’s activities on Taiping, which military analysts say is because Beijing views Taiwan as a part of China – by extension meaning that any improvements made on the Spratly Archipelago island would accrue to China if it should ever take over Taiwan.

"Taipei knows it is the only claimant that (China) will not bother, so it is free to upgrade its facilities on Taiping without fear of criticism from China," notes Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Hawaii-based East-West Center think tank. "China would protect Taiwan's garrisons if necessary."

As Zhang Zhexin, a research fellow on Taiwan issues at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies says, Beijing has no problem with Taiwan developing Taiping Island. "Taiwan itself is Chinese territory anyway," says Zhang.

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