UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Itu Aba Island [Taiping Island], Spratly Islands

President Ma Ying-jeou, president of Taiwan, a staunch but overlooked claimant in Asia’s biggest maritime territorial dispute, flew to a contested island January 28, 2016 to send a signal that has reached as far as Washington. He boarded a military aircraft before 9 a.m. for Itu Aba, a tropical atoll in the South China Sea also known as Taiping Island. He visited about 200 people stationed there as coast guard personnel, medical workers and scientific researchers before returning to Taipei by evening. Ma called for “peaceful” development of Itu Aba, citing infrastructure developments including a 10-bed hospital and a lighthouse.

Ma's visit to the islet 1,600 kilometers away from Taiwan follows an unusually stern statement this week from the foreign ministry calling the sea's four major tropical island archipelagos parts of the Republic of China under international laws. The Republic of China is Taiwan's legal name. The statement said Taiwan has “stood by” Itu Aba and other islets for 60 years.

Taiwan has built Itu Aba, an atoll covering half a square kilometer in the Spratly archipelago, into a coast guard outpost with solar energy projects and medical staff to help storm-battered ships. Those developments on the ocean's largest natural islet are parts of Taiwan's effort to gain international attention.

The US State Department called the Taiwan leader's trip unhelpful to easing disputes in the South China Sea. “Frankly, we’re disappointed," State deputy spokesperson Mark Toner said. "We view such an action as unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. We urge Taiwan and all claimants to lower tensions and deescalate tensions rather than taking actions that could possibly raise them.”

Taiwan took control of Itu Aba in 1956, the largest natural feature in the Spratly Islands. And now, the islet is a centerpiece of Taipei’s claims in the contentious waters with an airstrip, military and weather installations, and solar panels for energy. Unlike artificial islands built up by Beijing, the islet has not been enlarged through massive land reclamation efforts.

Itu Aba Island, located 10N23, 114E22, is one of the northern Spratly Islands, and since 1955-56 it has been claimed and occupied by Taiwan. Itu Aba lies in the northwestern part of the Tizard Bank, a large coral reef with several islands on it, like Namyit Island (Vietnam). The Taiwanese call it Taiping Island.

Taiping Island is located at the center of the Nansha Islands, which stretch 810 km from north to south and 900 km from east to west. The island chain is made up of 104 islands, reefs, cays, and banks, with Taiping Island being centrally located and by far the largest of all. ROC marines are currently stationed there. Facilities include a radar station, meteorological center, power plant, library, and activities center.

Six hundred and eighty miles to its north lies Hong Kong; 700 miles to its northeast is Kaohsiung; and Singapore is located 880 miles southwest of the island. James Shoal at the south of the island complex is the southernmost territory of China.

Most of China's shipping--including its tankers of imported oil--passes through or near the Spratlys. Itu Aba island is therefore of strategic importance to Taiwan, which could use the island as an attack submarine and aircraft base against Chinese merchant ships in the event of war. The Japanese based subs at the island during WWII, which proves the location is suitable for that purpose. In 2006, Taiwan announced plans to build a 1,150 meter-long airstrip on Itu Aba island to support search-and-rescue aircraft operating in the South China Sea, yet comments by other Taiwanese officials indicated that it could also be used for military purposes. Construction was completed in January 2008 in spite of official protests from Vietnam--which also claims the island--and in February of that year, the Taiwanese President flew to the island in a C-130 and landed on the airstrip. The President's visit, along with the presence of permanent troops and buildings, is clearly meant to solidify Taiwan's claims to Itu Aba / Taiping island. While Taiwan claims all of the Spratlys, clearly this one island is their main concern.

Taiping Island is located at 114°22'E longitude and 10°23'N latitude. The island has a land area of only 489,600 sq. meters (about half a square kilometer). It stretches 1,360 meters from east to west and 350 meters from north to south. Its average altitude is 3.8 meters above sea level. Its cross-island highway runs about one km long and a trip round the island can be completed in 30 minutes. The area has abundant fishing, mineral, and petroleum resources.

Itu Aba Island is the biggest island in the Spratlys. It is used by Taiwanese fishermen as a rest stop, occupies an important location within the South China Sea, and has a permanent ROC Navy garrison. As a result, the island now has buildings and well-built roads, and the soldiers keep it as clean as a well-kept park. However, the construction work has caused harm to the ecological balance on the island.

The island derives its name from the battleship "Peace (Tai Ping)," which China sent to recovery the island after Japan's surrender at the end of the Second World War. Fishermen used to call the island "Huang-Shang Ma Zhi." The Hainan Island pronunciation for this name is "Widuabe." On other western navigation maps, the island is named "Itu Aba Island," which derives from Malay "Itu aba (What's That?)."

Itu Aba is a sandy cay, rising to 2.4 meters near its centre. The island is overbuilt by several buildings, used by the Taiwan's military and several radio masts. A 25 meter high tower stands near the eastern end of the island, and a peace monument is at the center of the island. A large pier is on the southwest side, but can only handle small boats. A second observation tower is shown in the sea map on the northeastern end of the island, and it is reported to be 80 ft high.

The western part of the Tizard Bank consists of the westernmost Itu Aba Island, the central Centre Cay (10N24, 114E24) and the easternmost Sandy Cay (10N23, 114E28). Centre Cay is a smal coral plateau, 3 to 5 ft high and only covered by low bushes.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list