Taiwan is planning to spend $100 million on enhancing its port facility in a disputed region of the South China Sea, Reuters reported Sunday, a development that China, which views Taiwan as an outlying province, has seemingly chosen to ignore.
The new port is expected to come up next to an airstrip on the Itu Aba islands, also known as Tai Ping, and will allow Taiwan to dock 3,000-ton naval frigates and coastguard cutters, and include the construction of a 1,200-meter long runway to land Hercules C-130 military transport aircraft. The upgrade, which is expected to be completed late next year, is seen as Taiwan's assertion of sovereignty on the island, which is strategically located between the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
"Taipei knows it is the only claimant that (China) will not bother, so it is free to upgrade its facilities on Tai Ping without fear of criticism from China," Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Hawaii-based East-West Center think tank, said according to Reuters, adding: “China would protect Taiwan's garrisons if necessary."
Nearly $5 trillion worth of ship-borne goods pass through the South China Sea every year and Tai Ping, which comes with its own source of fresh water, also boasts the biggest runway in the hotly contested Spratly Islands archipelago. Taipei's move is also expected to support Taiwanese deep-sea fishermen, and marine and mineral research in the area.
While China and Taiwan have staked a claim to almost the entire South China Sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have also claimed parts of the sea, which is rich in oil deposits. Since 2008, both China and Taiwan have improved their relationship, after the election of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan’s president, but distrust between the two nations remain intact.
"Taiwan itself is Chinese territory anyway," Zhang Zhexin, a research fellow on Taiwan issues at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies said, according to Reuters, adding: “How can we have a territorial dispute within our own country? Of course Taiwan is part of China, so that includes all parts of China, including Tai Ping Island.”
Because of the island's significant strategic value, Taipei regularly stations coastguard personnel and soldiers, supplying them with defense weapons in Itu Aba.
"We would never invade islands occupied by other nations, but we will actively defend our claims," Reuters reported a spokesperson for Ma’s party as saying.