KEY POINTS

  • Taiping, known as Itu Aba, is currently being administered by Taiwan
  • Taiwan denied the move saying its Air Force is not aware of any such plan
  • But, the reports angered China, which threatened Taiwan with punishment 

China has reportedly warned Taiwan against its plan to develop an airstrip on a disputed South China Sea island, saying it was "playing with fire." This comes as local Taiwanese media reported that the island was planning to extend the runway on the contested Taiping Island.

The alleged plan is to extend the existing 1,150-meter-long airstrip by 350 meters so that it will be able to accommodate F-16 jet fighters and P-3C anti-submarine aircraft, reported Radio Free Asia, quoting United Daily News. The plan is said to have the consent of the U.S. forces.

Taiping, locally known as Itu Aba, is the biggest natural feature in the disputed Spratly islands. Taiping Island is currently administered by Taiwan, although it is also claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The report, quoting military experts, said the landing of F-16 fighter jets requires a runway of about 1,000 meters, and the landing of P-3C anti-submarine aircraft requires a runway of 975 meters. If the Taiping Island runway is extended to 1,500 meters, the existing fighters can take off and land.

Though the Taiwanese Air Force Command refused to confirm the development plans, saying that "Taiping Island runway is operating normally and the relevant statement is purely speculation," the report has angered Beijing. 

Ma Xiaoguang, the spokesman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office, issued a sharp statement against the move, warning Taipei of "playing with fire." "Any attempt to collude with external forces and betray the interests of the Chinese nation is playing with fire and will surely be punished by both sides of the [Taiwan] Strait," Ma was quoted by the state-run China News Service (CNS). "It will be rejected by the people and punished by history," he said.

Ma added that "the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands), including Taiping Island, are China's inherent territory, and China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and its adjacent waters."

Taipei immediately responded to China's threat, saying that the islands in the South China Sea belong to Taiwan. Though Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the alleged plans, the East Asian nation reiterated its determination to defend the sovereignty of the islands in the South China Sea.

The island, officially considered a “rock” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is named after the warship "Taiping" that China sent to take over the island after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II.

Spratlys South China Sea An aerial image shows construction on reclaimed land located in a disputed area of the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters