South China Sea: Taiwan enters power struggle

Updated 7:31 PM EDT, Sun March 27, 2016
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Story highlights

Taiwan occupies Taiping island in the disputed waters of the South China Sea

China's massive land reclamation projects have made neighbors nervous

Taiwan challenges a maritime arbitration case brought by the Philippines

(CNN) —  

Taiwan claims to have continuously occupied this postage stamp-sized island in the azure waters of the South China Sea for 60 years.

But it wasn’t until this week, that the government invited journalists to see the tiny place firsthand.

Also known as Itu Aba, Taiping island consists of little more than a 1,360 meter long airstrip bordered on two sides by palm trees and white sandy beaches.

But that is enough for Taiwan to make its case in the growing struggle for control of this hotly disputed body of water – where $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through annually.

Showdown in the South China Sea: How did we get here?

Island, not a rock

Taiping Island “is entitled to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles,” outgoing Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou told journalists on Wednesday – which gives a country special rights over the seabed, and marine resources like fish.

However, there at least six countries laying competing claims to different parts of the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

China, with a large U shape on its maps, lays claim to virtually all of the contested waters.

To cement its stance, Beijing has been building man-made islands atop seven reefs it controls in the Spratly archipelago, a series of atolls far closer to the Philippines and Malaysia than mainland China.

These massive land reclamation projects have made the neighbors nervous.

“Like most countries we are opposed to militarization or military expansionism in the area,” said Bruce Linghu, deputy foreign minister of Taiwan.

The diplomat expressed concern that China’s ambitious island-building could trigger “possible confrontations or conflicts.”

 A lighthouse is pictured on Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba, in the South China Sea.
PHOTO: Chen Chien Hsing
A lighthouse is pictured on Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba, in the South China Sea.

Warnings

In fact, the U.S. and Chinese navies have already engaged in several rounds of shadow-boxing here.

Last May, CNN’s Jim Sciutto accompanied a U.S. Navy spy plane on a flight over several of the man-made islands.

“This is the Chinese navy, this is the Chinese navy. Please go away,” a Chinese radio operator announced in one of at least eight warnings to the aircraft.

In October, the Chinese government summoned the U.S. ambassador to Beijing to issue a formal protest after the destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-controlled Subi Reef in the Spratlys.

The destroyer’s voyage was “a very serious provocation, politically and militarily” China’s ambassador to the U.S. told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview.

One of the military bunkers and anti-aircraft batteries defending Taiping Island.   Taiwan officials say they replaced the Marines who used to defend this island with coast guard personnel more than a decade ago.
PHOTO: Ivan Watson/CNN
One of the military bunkers and anti-aircraft batteries defending Taiping Island. Taiwan officials say they replaced the Marines who used to defend this island with coast guard personnel more than a decade ago.

But the U.S. Navy continues to carry out what Washington calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea.

“Just being there in the South China Sea shows that we believe we have the right to operate in international waters,” said Rear Admiral Ronald Boxall.

He spoke to CNN aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, two weeks after he led a carrier strike group conducting operations in the South China Sea.

During that journey, the U.S. Navy reported seeing far more Chinese navy ships around the strike group than on previous deployments.

“It’s a growing navy – there’s no question,” said Admiral Boxall, as F-18 fighters catapulted off the deck of the aircraft carrier into the sky.

“As you see a navy get larger, and you see a lot of activity in the South China Sea, you always wonder at what point what exactly that’s going to mean to our navy and our presence there,” he added.

Shifting alliances

Beijing’s forceful maritime moves have prompted some smaller countries in the region to welcome the U.S. Navy’s presence here.

In recent months, former U.S. enemy Vietnam publicly called on the U.S. to play a bigger role in the South China Sea.

And nearly a quarter century after the U.S. closed its military bases on the Philippines, both governments announced last week a new agreement for U.S. troops to make use of five bases on the island nation.

“It’s certainly leading to a bit of an arms race in the region. Chinese behavior in the South China Sea is creating incentives for different countries in the region…to bolster their defense budgets,” said J. Michael Cole, a Taiwan-based analyst with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.

Legal challenge

The Philippines, whose military is dramatically out-gunned and out-resourced by China, is also attempting to use international law to challenge Beijing.

It has taken China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, arguing that China’s occupation of the Spratly Islands violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). A ruling is expected in May.

China refuses to participate and doesn’t recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

“I think this can backfire on China,” warned Daniel Pinkston, a South Korea-based lecturer on international relations with Troy University.

“If you act opportunistically in the short run, using your power capabilities to grab benefits without restraint, then other states will start forming a coalition against you.”

But the Philippines-China arbitration case led to an unforeseen consequence: a challenge from Taiwan.

The government of Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, rejects claims by the Philippines’ legal team at the Hague that Taiping does not deserve to be called an island, according to international maritime law.

To prove this point, officials invited journalists on a three hour, 1577 km (980 mile) military flight from an airforce base in southern Taiwan to Taiping Island.

Such a public relations exercise is particularly important for Taiwan, which isn’t a member of the U.N. and thus not a signatory to UNCLOS – China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and blocks its membership of most international organizations.

During the first ever visit for journalists to Taiping Island,  officials showed off vegetable gardens, fresh water wells, a chicken coop and a pen full of goats.
PHOTO: MOI ROC (Taiwan)
During the first ever visit for journalists to Taiping Island, officials showed off vegetable gardens, fresh water wells, a chicken coop and a pen full of goats.

Azure waters

From the air, we could see the coral reefs and atolls that speckle the azure waters of the South China Sea in the Spratly archipelago.

On Taiping, officials showed off small vegetable gardens, chicken coops and a pen full of goats that help feed the 167 coast guard officers based on the island.

They also invited visitors to sample the water drawn from one of the island’s fresh water wells.

Taiping “is blessed with an abundance of high-quality freshwater,” President Ma later explained. He invited representatives from the Philippines and judges from the Court of Arbitration to visit the island.

The leader argued that if Taiping officially won the designation of being an island, Taiwan could theoretically argue for fishing rights as well as permission to explore for minerals in the seabed in a huge 200 nautical mile [230 mile, 370 km] economic exclusion zone surrounding it.

Taiwan’s goal, Ma said, is to transform Taiping into “an island for peace and rescue operations.”

But the tiny island’s palm tree-lined beaches also bristle with concrete military bunkers, anti-aircraft guns and helmeted, uniformed guards.

What should be a remote tropical paradise is instead part of a much larger power struggle over the future of the South China Sea.

CNN’s KJ Kwon, Yuli Yang, Bex Wright, Katie Hunt and Felicia Wong contributed to this report