TAIPEI • Taiwan will increase its coast guard presence on a small island in the disputed Spratlys in South China Sea, the coast guard chief said yesterday, as rival China asserts its claims to the same chain.
Taiwan has largely kept out of disputes between China and its neighbours in the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have overlapping claims.
Rival claims to the island by Taiwan and China go back to before the defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war with the Communists in 1949. China, to this day, considers self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province, to be united with the mainland by force if necessary.
Coast guard chief Wang Chung-yi said Taiwan's construction of a port on the island of Itu Aba, or Taiping as it is known in Taiwan, remains on track and will be able to support permanently stationed 100-ton ships and allow 2,000- and 3,000-ton vessels to dock.
He would not be drawn on China's claims to the island but said the port, with an airstrip and hospital, was part of Taiwan's efforts to bolster its humanitarian aid role.
When the port is done, the staff "will probably increase by nearly 30 to 40 people, including those onshore and at sea", he told reporters.
Currently, the island supports around 180 people, with about 150 of them marine-trained coast guard personnel who have had oversight of the 46ha island since 2000. Itu Aba is now the fourth largest island in the Spratlys, after China's land reclamation work on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, Mr Wang said.
In a rebuff to China, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said in Boston this week that the United States military would sail and fly wherever international law allowed, including the disputed South China Sea.
Mr Carter spoke after a two-day meeting between US and Australian foreign and defence ministers, during which the long-time allies agreed to expand defence cooperation and expressed "strong concerns" over Beijing's building on disputed islands. REUTERS