The Executive Yuan yesterday said that civilians are not allowed to set foot on Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) without permission from the Ministry of National Defense, even as a group of Taiwanese fishermen plan to sail close to the contested island in the South China Sea today.
“Given that Taiping Island is categorized as a restricted military area, fishermen are not permitted to enter the zone without the defense ministry’s authorization,” Executive Yuan spokesman Tung Chen-yuan (童振源) said.
However, if the fishermen are in need of emergency shelter or need to replenish their supplies on the island, the coast guard officers stationed there would provide assistance, Tung said.
Tung added that as the fishermen are not familiar with the area they are heading to, the Coast Guard Administration would order patrol vessels to stop the boats at a safe distance to ensure their safety at sea.
Tung made the remarks four days after a group of fishermen from Pingtung County on Wednesday embarked on a mission to sail to Taiwan-controlled Itu Aba in an effort to assert Taiwanese sovereignty over the island and safeguard their fishing rights.
Itu Aba is the largest naturally occurring land feature in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and has been administered by Taiwan since 1956.
It is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and China.
The fishermen’s actions were prompted by a ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12, part of which stated that all of the high-tide features of the Spratlys, including Itu Aba, are legally “rocks” that do not have an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.
The ministry released a statement later yesterday saying it respects the fishermen’s decision to sail to waters near Itu Aba.
“Nevertheless, as Itu Aba is an important military restricted zone, people who plan to visit the island must file an application with the Ministry of National Defense at least 45 days in advance... These measures are put in place to safeguard our national security,” the ministry said, calling for consideration and cooperation from the public.
Speaking at a news conference in Taipei yesterday morning, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Alicia Wang (王育敏) said that as the fishermen did not file an application to visit Itu Aba beforehand, they are planning to request permission to set foot on the island on grounds of “seeking emergency shelter.”
Lo Chiang-fei (羅強飛), who acts as a spokesman for the fishermen, said that a coast guard vessel approached the fishing boats at 3:14pm yesterday to protect the boats, which were 157 nautical miles (290km) from Itu Aba at the time.
Lo said that the fishermen would attempt to set foot on the island this afternoon.
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