The Philippines has officially declined an invitation from Taiwan to visit Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) in the disputed South China Sea, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday, while rebutting Manila’s argument that Itu Aba is a rock and not an island.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) extended the invitation in March to the Philippines to send government representatives or lawyers to visit Taiping to see the place for themselves, as questions have been raised recently about whether the 0.51km2 Itu Aba, the largest of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), can be defined as an island under international law.
Ma also invited the five arbitrators from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, who are dealing with a case brought by the Philippines against China, which has triggered interest in how the land formations in the South China Sea should be defined.
The Philippines formally declined Taiwan’s invitation, while The Hague has yet to respond, the ministry said in a statement.
The Philippines has continued to make statements about Itu Aba that Taiwan considers to be false, which has undermined peace in the region, the ministry said.
Manila is hoping that the court will rule that many of the formations claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea are reefs or rocks, entitled to no more than 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of territorial waters, rather than islands, which generate 200-nautical-mile economic zones.
Such a ruling would negate many of China’s claims to fishing or resource rights in the region.
Taiwan has taken an interest in the case because a lawyer for the Philippines has argued that Itu Aba is not an island, but a rock that cannot support human habitation.
As part of Taiwan’s efforts to seek international support for its stance that Itu Aba meets the definition of an island, it has arranged for international media representatives and experts over the past few months to visit the island to see it for themselves.
Ma also visited Itu Aba in January. The island lies about 1,600km southwest of Kaohsiung.
Itu Aba has its own sources of natural, abundant, potable water, as well as naturally formed fertile soil, as well as fruit, vegetables, chickens and goats that have been raised there, providing ample evidence that it is fit for human habitation and can support an economic life of its own, meeting the definition of an island under international law, the ministry said.
In yesterday’s statement, the ministry once again extended an invitation to the tribunal panel to visit Itu Aba so that it does not make a ruling based on only partial information.
“If the court of arbitration does not respond to our invitation, it should not make a ruling on the legal status of Taiping,” the ministry said.
Should the final ruling undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty over the South China Sea and maritime rights in the region, it would not be legally binding for Taiwan, the ministry said.
The Republic of China government would not recognize or accept such a ruling, it added.
Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim all or part of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, which is thought to be rich in oil and natural gas reserves.
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