Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, asserted his country’s claim on Taiping, or Itu Aba, in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea, by taking a day trip to the mostly barren rock formation on January 28, 2016. United States and Philippine officials were quick to issue disapproving statements regarding Ma’s first visit to Itu Aba in his eight years as president.
Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.) turned down Ma’s invitation for D.P.P. officials to accompany him to Itu Aba.
According to Reuters, American Institute in Taiwan‘s spokeswoman Sonia Urbom had reservations about Ma’s trip. A.I.T., the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, found expression in Urbom’s peace advocacy prior to last-term Ma’s Itu Aba “swan song.”
“We are disappointed that President Ma Ying-jeou plans to travel to Taiping Island. Such an action is extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.”
Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose has also been vocal against Taiwan’s Itu Aba claim. The Former Philippine Consul General to Shanghai was quoted by the Philippine Star, saying this.
“We remind all parties concerned of our shared responsibility to refrain from actions that can increase tension in the South China Sea.”
Focus Taiwan‘s Itu Aba article on January 31 took exception to the Philippine insistence that none of the features in the Spratlys — not even the largest among them, meaning Itu Aba — is capable of generating entitlement to an exclusive economic zone (E.E.Z.) or a continental shelf.
The article cites Song Yann-huei, a research fellow at Taiwan’s Institute of European and American Studies of Academia Sinica, designating Itu Aba an “island” after visiting it. He disagreed with the Philippine argument that there is no fresh water on the rock formation suitable for drinking or soil for growing crops, making it incapable of supporting human habitation.
“Is the Philippines’ claim regarding fresh water and soil on Taiping Island well founded in fact? In my experience, no. On my four visits to Itu Aba, I ate crops grown on the island and drank from the skimming water well located near its small hospital.”
Taiwan’s Song failed to disclose that the “vegetation” he witnessed was window dressing for the mostly rock fisher’s waystation, and the skimming well he drank from reveals a desalination method used in the absence of fresh groundwater on Itu Aba.
According to Rappler, Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio of the Philippine Supreme Court, made the following determination.
“Under U.N.C.L.O.S., to generate an E.E.Z., an island must be capable of human habitation or economic life of its own. The soldiers stationed in Itu Aba cannot survive without periodic supplies from Taiwan. In the law of the sea jurisprudence, there are many islands bigger than Itu Aba that have been denied E.E.Z.s opposite a mainland or a much larger island (Palawan). In all probability, an international tribunal will deny Itu Aba an E.E.Z.”
In April, 2015, Taipei Times questioned why a huge sum of money was spent on a rocky plain more than 1,600 kilometers away from Taiwan’s shores. According to the periodical, Itu Aba is surrounded by shallow water and reefs, merchant vessels avoid it, and islands within 10 nautical miles (18.5km) are run by other nations. Strategically, the area in contention is in no position to control the sea lanes in the South China Sea.
From a military standpoint, Taipei Times also questioned the rock formation as a potential military base or port for warships when there is no oil or food in 45 hectares of flat terrain. A military base in such open area invites annihilation. After decades of over-extraction from limited sources through artificial means, water must be imported from Taiwan’s own supply. All necessities, “except sunlight and air,” the Times derided, come from outside Itu Aba.
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