Taiwan has been a relatively quiet player in the tense dispute about territorial claims in the South China Sea. That could change with an unusual initiative that Taipei says is a peaceful approach to asserting its sovereignty in a body of water where China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims. The plan involves tourists, rare turtles and a remote atoll.
Marine National Park headquarters in Dongsha atoll (Photo courtesy Taiwan Marine National Park Headquarters)
In August, the Taiwan government took 21 university students from Kaohsiung to the tropical Dongsha atoll, some 460 kilometers from Taiwan. Their trip was aimed at building local awareness of the atoll, but it coincided with a rare discovery of a sea turtle colony that uses the atoll to lay eggs.
Officials at the National Marine Park say the return of the turtles is a sign that the ocean ecosystem may be stabilizing despite over-fishing in recent years. There are now plans for a new marine research center.
Lin Ling, deputy director with the Marine National Park Headquarters in south Taiwan, says the public could expect more surprises from ecological research.
She says the atoll’s resources are unusual, and that while it is not yet clear what they mean for the whole South China Sea, they are definitely unique. She believes there are species that have not yet been discovered, which will attract researchers from nearby countries.
Aerial view of Dongsha atoll (Photo courtesy Taiwan Marine National Park headquarters)
South China Sea
Taiwan’s effort is hardly just environmental. Taiwan and China both claim nearly the entire 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea as their own.
The basis of Taiwan's claim to the South China Sea mirrors that of China. Both say the Chinese navy was active there in the Han and Ming Dynasties. They say Chinese fishermen and traders also worked the region throughout the centuries. The Republic of China, which is the legal name of Taiwan's government, also claims today's China in its constitution. But because the South China Sea is actively disputed by several countries, Taiwan is taking special measures to promote its maritime claims in the region.
Other countries in the region also claim parts of the sea, which is rich in marine life and believed to hold vast undersea oil and natural gas reserves.
The competing claims have sparked naval clashes in other parts of the sea, including deadly ones in 1974 and 1988. China, Vietnam and the Philippines have been most publicly in conflict over the region. But Taiwan’s 200 coast guard patrolmen occasionally chase foreign fishing vessels away from the Dongsha atoll, which lies near key sea shipping lanes. Taiwan also holds the largest island in the Spratly chain, one of the most hotly disputed parts of the South China Sea.
However, Taiwan cannot assert itself like other governments in the region.
China claims not only the disputed ocean area but also Taiwan itself, and Beijing forbids its diplomatic allies throughout Asia from talking formally with officials in Taipei.
Taipei is trying to get along better with China after six decades of political hostilities, and is seeking a mutually beneficial trading relationship. So Taiwan sees its effort to preserve the marine environment, and with it the region’s fisheries, as an expression of its soft power.
Coast guard deputy minister Cheng Chang-hsiung explains.
He says ecological preservation is a commonly respected goal around the world, so other governments will support what Taiwan’s government is doing on the atoll as something that is good for the planet. He says numerous scholars have done research and ecological protection work on Dongsha and their reports can easily be distributed to all parties. He adds that Taiwan’s government wants a peaceful solution to any disputes rather than armed clashes.
In July, Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to South China Sea confidence-building guidelines after nine years of talks, but Taiwan was not invited to participate, prompting a protest from Taipei.
New fish and coral at Dogsha atoll (Photo courtesy Taiwan Marine National Park headquarters)
Shut out of the regional talks, Taiwan plans to open the Dongsha atoll to more visitors. Only government employees and researchers with special permits currently visit. But once it opens, ferries and flights would take tourists from Taiwan, including foreign nationals. The coast guard took two groups of university students in August and plans to offer more expeditions next year.
Fang Hsueh-wen, an R.O.C. Military Academy undergraduate who visited Dongsha, says there is no doubt in his mind who owns it.
He says a lot of countries want to use the atoll but it is clearly controlled by Taiwan’s government, the Republic of China. He believes the group of students from 16 universities will study it, tour it and in the process understand that it belongs to their government, rather than to another claimant.
Although tourist visits may bolster Taiwan's territorial claims, they could also add to stresses on the fragile local ecosystem. The flat atoll is dominated by white sand beaches, a grassy lagoon and coast guard facilities that have little fresh water.
There is no hotel nor even a convenience store. Lin with the National Park says there is also no timeline yet for opening it to regular tourists.
She says opening Dongsha to the public may be tough, because ferries would charge high fares while food and fresh water are hard to get because of the islet’s small size. She says food is brought in by boat and a desalination plant on the atoll generates fresh water for government workers stationed there, but not enough for the public.