Tue, May 27, 2014 - Page 3 News List

Itu Aba upgrades raise no Chinese concern: experts

ALL CHINA’S:As Taiwan is Chinese territory, we would not have a territorial dispute within our own country, a Shanghai Institute for International Studies fellow said

By Michael Gold and Greg Torode  /  Reuters, TAIPEI

Coast Guard Administration patrol ships are seen during a drill held northwest of the Port of Kaohsiung, on March 30 last year.

Photo: PICHI CHUANG, Reuters

The nation is building a US$100 million port next to an airstrip on the lone island it occupies in the disputed South China Sea, a move that is drawing hardly any flak from the most assertive player in the bitterly contested waters — China, military strategists said.

The reason is that Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島) could one day be in China’s hands, should it ever take over Taiwan, they said.

While Itu Aba is small, no other disputed island has such sophisticated facilities. Its runway is the biggest of only two in the Spratly archipelago (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) that straddles the South China Sea, and the island has its own fresh water source.

“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,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Hawaii-based East-West Center think tank. “China would protect Taiwan’s garrisons if necessary.”

The upgraded facilities on Itu Aba should be finished late next year or earlier, officials from the Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Transportation and Communications said, replacing an existing wharf that can only handle small vessels.

The upgrade would give Taiwan a port able to accommodate 3,000 tonne naval frigates and coast guard cutters, while improvements are being made to the 1,200m runway for its Hercules C-130 transport planes, the officials said.

They said the new port was not just a demonstration of sovereignty, but also a way to support a trade-dependent economy, while helping the nation’s deep-sea fishermen and marine and mineral carry out research in the area.

About US$5 trillion in ship-borne goods pass through the South China Sea every year.

Taiwan and China share claims to virtually the entire South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the potentially oil-rich sea.

While Taiwan-China ties have warmed since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) came to power in 2008, there has been no political reconciliation or a lessening of military distrust.

However, if conflict ever broke out in the Spratlys, analysts and military experts believe China would seek to protect Itu Aba as its own, strongly aware of its strategic value.

The Spratlys are one of the main flashpoints in the South China Sea, where military fortifications belonging to all claimants, except Brunei, are dotted across some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

China occupies eight shoals and reefs, but its strategists have long bristled at Vietnam’s two dozen holdings. Manila occupies eight reefs and islands, and Malaysia seven.

Incidents at sea in recent years, such as ships getting rammed or attempted blockades, have usually involved China against the Philippines or Vietnam.

Zhang Zhexin (張哲馨), a research fellow on Taiwan issues at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said Beijing would not have a problem with the nation developing Itu Aba.

“Taiwan itself is Chinese territory anyway,” he said.

“How can we have a territorial dispute within our own country? Of course Taiwan is part of China, so that includes all parts of China, including Taiping Island,” he said.

The island, administered by the Coast Guard Administration, is about 1,600km southwest of Taiwan, out of range of its US-made F-16 warplanes, lying between the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

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