TAIWAN (THE CHINA POST / ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A pair of Taiping Island patrol vessels were ordered back to Taiwan to avoid typhoon damage - not because the government has given up its claim to sovereignty over the area, Coast Guard Administration (CGA) Minister Lee Chung-wei said Monday (July 11).
The decision, which was also made so that the two 100-tonne vessels could undergo annual maintenance, was unrelated to territorial claims, despite speculation to the contrary by some opposition lawmakers, Lee said during a legislative session.
The Taiping harbour offers limited protection against typhoons, the strong wind and currents of which could damage vessels and injure personnel stationed aboard them, according to the minister.
Lee said that after the ships were called back, the CGA dispatched the 2,000-tonne Wei Hsing to patrol waters near the South China Sea island.
The vessel, which departed Taiwan on Sunday afternoon, will join the rotation of ships dispatched by the Defence Ministry to safeguard Taiwan's territories, he said.
The events come at a sensitive time in the South China Sea, with an international court to rule Tuesday on a related territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.
To contest Beijing's claim in the South China Sea, the Philippines submitted a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last year arguing that the land formations Beijing claimed in the South China Sea were nothing more than reefs and were therefore not entitled to 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones.
The Philippines also argued that Taiping was a rock and not an island, and that it therefore should not have any maritime entitlements beyond 12 nautical miles.
Although Taiwan is not a party to the case, the ruling could undermine Republic of China's sovereignty claims over Taiping Island and in the South China Sea.
Taiping, a 0.49-square-kilometre island, is the largest in the Spratly Islands, which lie about 1,600 kilometres southwest of Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan.
Taiwan, mainland China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all claim total or partial sovereignty over the South China Sea.
The CGA has had personnel stationed on Taiping since the R.O.C. Marines pulled out in 1999. Coast guardsmen were given extensive training by the marines before being sent to the disputed island.
Asked whether Taiwan should beef up its military presence in Taiping, Lee said that it was up to the central government to make the decision.