When asked if he would disclaim Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) replied quite atypically, saying that such ideas were “crazy.” When it comes to territorial disputes, our countrymen are unusually brave, not to mention that Taiwan still controls Itu Aba Island. However, the question is why a huge sum of money has been spent on this tiny island more than 1,600km away from Taiwan proper.
Strategically speaking, Itu Aba Island is surrounded by shallow water and reefs. Merchant vessels basically avoid the area. Moreover, nearby islands within 10 nautical miles (18.5km) of Itu Aba Island are controlled by various other nations. Itu Aba Island is by no means in a position that allows it to control the sea lanes in the South China Sea.
From a military standpoint, can this island be used as a military base or port for warships? There is no oil or food on the island. There used to be fresh water, but after decades of over-extraction there is nothing left and water must be imported from Taiwan. All necessities, except sunlight and air, have to be supplied from outside the island.
How could Itu Aba possibly serve as a base for warships?
Furthermore, although Itu Aba Island is the largest of the naturally occurring Spratly Islands, its area covers only 45 hectares.
The terrain is flat, and there is no place to be used as a shelter; nor can any effective shelter be built on it. A military base on this island could be annihilated instantly.
During peacetime, it is workable to practice military parades and drills, raise the flag and sing the national anthem on the island, but once peace is over, all personnel on the island would be left with two choices: Surrender, or die for the country. There is no chance that they would be able to defend themselves until rescue arrives.
In terms of resources, there is not a single Taiwanese fishing boat within 800km of Itu Aba, because the distance is too far and the commercial value of the catch and revenue are not enough to cover operational costs.
Ironically, the maritime areas are the fishing grounds of Taiwan’s neighbors, such as China, the Philippines and Vietnam. Over the past decades, Itu Aba Island has been used as an aid station or shelter for fishermen from these nations. Whenever they are suffering from any form of ailment or are in need of help of any kind, they call on Itu Aba for humanitarian aid.
As for the rumored oil resources, there is no evidence that there is abundant oil on the island. If there were, war would likely ensue, and not a drop of it would be sent back to Taiwan proper.
What about Taiwan’s right to make itself heard on the global stage?
Taiwan has occupied this island for more than half a century, the longest of any nation, but whenever Itu Aba is discussed internationally, Taiwan has never been allowed to the table.
Before stepping down in 2008, then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) finished the construction of the island’s airport and visited in person, publishing the Spratly Initiative. He is the only leader of any nation to have visited the Spratly Islands in person, but so what?
Let us not forget that the Spratly Islands are comprised of hundreds of atolls and islets, and that Itu Aba is just one of them. If even one small island is already beyond reach for Taiwan, how could we have the capability to lay claim to the entire Spratly Islands chain?
Furthermore, our current Spratly Islands policy was made decades ago, in a different situation, to complement the policy to destroy the eternally wicked Chinese communists and rescue our fellow countrymen suffering in China.
Today, however, ambassadors from the eternally wicked communist China are ordering us about as if they were representatives from heaven and our suffering fellow countrymen are now supporting us all.
Do we still uphold the old doctrine that we and the Chinese communists cannot coexist and that we have an obligation to retake China?
The “Republic of China” is no longer the China that covers 960 million hectares, has a population of 1.4 billion and boasts a history of thousands of years of dominance in eastern Asia.
National strength has weakened, the political climate regarding the Spratly Islands is ambivalent and money has been squandered defending the indefensible.
Is it time to face the music and carefully make the necessary adjustments?
Chiang Huang-chih is a professor of law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Ethan Zhan
China took advantage of the vacuum left behind when US carriers stayed out of the western Pacific Ocean due to COVID-19 outbreaks on several US Navy warships. The Chinese government is solidifying its hold on artificial islands in the South China Sea by moving in missiles and surveillance equipment, and formalizing its occupation by creating two municipal districts in the region under Hainan Island’s Sansha — Xisha District on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) to administer the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Nansha District on Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島) to administer the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) —
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