| ITU ABA, South China Sea
ITU ABA, South China Sea Nov 29 Taiwan held
rescue drills on Tuesday off the coast of its sole outpost in
the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea, but the biggest
claimant in the disputed area kept uncharacteristically quiet.
China and self-governed Taiwan seldom see eye to eye, but in
responding to Taipei's latest assertion of sovereignty over Itu
Aba, Beijing has avoided the harsh language it often directs at
other claimants to the busy waterway.
China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei
claim parts or all of the energy-rich South China Sea, through
which trillions of dollars in trade passes annually.
Taiwan and China both suffered setbacks to their claims in
July, when an international tribunal ruled that China's historic
boundary, the so-called nine-dash line, was invalid, and said
Itu Aba was a rock, rather than a self-sustaining island
entitled to a 200-km economic zone.
Experts say Beijing is largely content for Taipei to push
its claims on Itu Aba, the largest natural feature in the
Spratlys, because China views Taiwan as a breakaway province to
be taken back by force one day, if necessary.
So, while Chinese ships have confronted Malaysian,
Philippine and Vietnamese vessels in the area, Taiwan's regular
journeys to and from the lonely outcrop have gone unimpeded.
"Our supply transports have never encountered Chinese
interference," Lee Chung-wei, minister of Taiwan's Coast Guard
Administration, told reporters visiting Itu Aba for the rescue
In the exercises, coast guard vessels and navy helicopters
practised how to retrieve injured crewmen from a burning ship
and transport them to Itu Aba's small port and hospital.
Asked about the drills on Itu Aba, and whether Taiwan had an
obligation to respect Chinese sovereignty there, China's foreign
ministry underscored its desire for a unified approach.
"The Nansha Islands, including Taiping Island, are
inseparable parts of China," spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily
briefing in Beijing, using China's terms for the Spratlys and
"Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have an
obligation to jointly protect this ancestral property."
Drills such as Tuesday's show Taiwan's determination to
become an important player, said Ian Storey, a South China Sea
scholar at Singapore's ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, adding that
Taiwan officials and experts had told him of frustration at
being diplomatically marginalized in the South China
Taiwan treads a fine line between annoying friendly South
East Asian neighbours and the United States, its sole political
ally and arms supplier, by being a proxy for China's sovereign
interests, despite the risk of angering Beijing, he added.
"It is a tricky position that means they are broadly
supportive of Beijing," Storey said. "They want to be seen as
pushing their own Chinese claims, rather than Beijing's, even
though they are essentially the same."
Taiwan officials say President Tsai Ing-wen kicked off plans
for the drills in July, a month after Beijing cut official
communication channels because Tsai, who leads the
independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), refuses
to commit to the 'one China' principle that Taiwan is part of
To maintain ties, Tsai must continue arguing that Itu Aba is
an island, not a rock, and is not to be used by military forces
of other nations, said Wu Shicun, head of the National Institute
for South China Sea Studies.
"Doing so would likely mean that they would threaten China's
sovereignty in the South China Sea," said Chinese government
adviser Wu. "If she steps over these red lines, I believe China
will take responsive action."
(Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd and Ben Blanchard
in BEIJING, Greg Torode in HONG KONG; Writing by Lincoln Feast;
Editing by Clarence Fernandez)