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Taiwanese scholars argue Taiping Island a bonafide 'island'

2016/01/31 22:01:33

Taiping Island. (CNA file photo)

Taipei, Jan. 31 (CNA) In a case Philippines has brought against China in an international court, it is arguing that the land features comprising the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are not "islands" and are not entitled to exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

Manila has submitted the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to challenge China's view that the reefs and atolls it claims give it the right to exclusive access to waters that the Philippines consider to be its own EEZs.

Though Taiwan is not involved in the case, it is watching closely because part of Manila's argument addresses the status of the Spratlys, the biggest of which -- Taiping Island or Itu Aba -- is controlled by Taipei.

The Philippines has argued that "none of the features in the Spratlys -- not even the largest among them -- is capable of generating entitlement to an EEZ or a continental shelf," but two Taiwanese scholars say Manila is wrong on Taiping Island.

They are Song Yann-huei (宋燕輝), a research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies of Academia Sinica, and Wang Kuan-hsiung (王冠雄), a professor at the Graduate Institute of Political Science at National Taiwan Normal University.

The two visited Taiping Island in December 2015 and January 2016, respectively, and they both have argued that Taiping meets the basic definition of an island under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea -- that it can sustain human habitation or economic life on its own.

In an article published on the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative website on Jan. 26, Song said the Philippines has argued there is no fresh water on the island suitable for drinking or soil capable of growing crops and therefore not capable of supporting human habitation.

"Is the Philippines' claim regarding fresh water and soil on Taiping Island well founded in fact? In my experience, no. On my four visits to Itu Aba, I ate crops grown on the island and drank from the skimming water well located near its small hospital," Song wrote.

He also questioned the 1995 article cited by the Philippines as the "most authoritative evidence" in supporting its claims of a lack of drinking water and food.

The article was written by three Taiwanese botanists and appeared in "Taiwania: International Journal of Life Sciences," Soong said.

"The research behind the article focused on the flora on Itu Aba, not the quality of water or availability of topsoil," he said.

"The three authors are botanists, not experts on water quality or soil."

"Given these facts, how can the article be cited as authoritative evidence that there is no fresh water or soil on Itu Aba?" Song asked.

He questioned the testimony of professor Clive Schofield of the University of Wollongong in Australia, who was an expert witness at the second oral hearing in the arbitration case at The Hague in November 2015.

During the hearing, Schofield said his "firm belief" was that Itu Aba is a "rock."

"It seems he (Schofield) accepted the so-called 'most authoritative evidence' provided by the Philippines' legal team," Soong said.

"Schofield accepted this publication at its face-value without any verification. In addition, he admitted that he has not had access to Itu Aba," Soong said.

"But I suspect he would change his opinion if he were invited to visit the island and, like me, had the chance to drink fresh water from the skimming well and eat a lunch of cooked vegetables and fruits picked from the island's garden."

In an article published in the China Times on Jan. 26, Wang wrote that he "came across ample scientific evidence" that countered the Philippines contentions that Taiping was a "rock" rather than an "island" at oral hearings in July and November.

Wang said the water from one of four operational groundwater wells that he drank from was as high as 99 percent pure and safe for daily consumption, and this is proved by the fact that Republic of China (ROC) personnel stationed on the island have relied on it as their drinking water.

He said the soil from inner-island areas "presented a calcareous well-formed soil structure whereas the topsoil, down to 40 centimeters, consisted primarily of sand mixed with dry twigs and leaves, and large amounts of guano."

"Both types of soil are naturally formed through years of accumulation and are sufficiently nutrient-rich to support indigenous vegetation growth," he wrote.

The farm developed there by ROC Coast Guard Administration personnel cultivates several tropical vegetables and fruits, such as corn, sweet potato, okra, pumpkin, loofah gourd, bitter melon and cabbage, which along with wild coconut, papaya and plantains provide the dietary needs of the people on the island, Wang wrote.

Manila has focused its claims on several of the smaller reefs and atolls targeted by China in the Spratly archipelago, and it remains unclear whether the court will address Taiping Island specifically.

But because Taiwan, known formally as the Republic of China, makes sovereignty claims in the South China Sea similar to Beijing's nine-dotted line, a victory by the Philippines could force Taiwan to reconsider some of its claims in the South China Sea.

Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and China all claim all or part of the Spratlys.

(By Elizabeth Hsu)