'Leave Taiping issue alone'

A member of Taiwan's coast guard speaks as he guides visiting journalists on Taiping island in the Spratlys chain in the South China Sea. PHOTO: AFP

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is appealing to the Permanent Court of Arbitration - expected to rule on the South China Sea dispute next month or in June - to "leave the Taiping island issue alone".

Should the tribunal choose to determine the status of Taiping - the largest of the disputed Spratly Islands - "it should make its decision based on the facts and the law, that is, Taiping Island is an island, not a rock", says Mr Ma. To that end, he invited interested parties, including the judges, to visit Taiping, controlled by Taiwan since 1946.

"I sincerely hope they can come and see for themselves and ask the courts to make the right decision.

"But hopefully, better do it before May 20," he adds, in a reference to the end of his term.

The stakes for Taiwan are high. Islands are entitled to an exclusive economic zone and other rights not enjoyed by rocks.

But the decision involves not just Taiwan's rights, says Mr Ma. "If this island is downgraded, even more parts of the world could not be deemed as islands. That will have great repercussions."

Both China and Taiwan claim to be the official government of China, and lay claim to almost all of the South China Sea. But because Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it is not a party to the international arbitration process started by the Philippines.

In recent months, Taiwan has been taking steps via public diplomacy and public relations to bolster its argument that Taiping is naturally capable of habitation and is thus an island. Last month, it invited the international media to visit the island, where goats roam and fresh well water is available. Over the weekend, academics visited as well.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2016, with the headline 'Leave Taiping issue alone'. Subscribe