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Taiwan Fishing Boats Start Trip to Defend Contested Island

FILE - In this March 23, 2016, file photo, an aerial view is seen from a military plane of the Taiwan-controlled Taiping island, also known as Itu Aba.

Five fishing boats set out Wednesday for Taiwan’s chief islet in the contested South China Sea to dispute a world arbitration court ruling that calls the tiny land form a rock rather than an island, meaning there are no rights to an exclusive economic zone in the surrounding waters.

The boats operated by 15 people left from Pingtung County in southern Taiwan for a 10-day trip to the Spratly archipelago islet known as Taiping or Itu Aba. Taiwan is in a dispute with China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines over rights to the nearly 3.5 million-square-kilometer waterway.

“We will show this is an island, not a rock, and belongs to Taiwan,” said Luo Chiang-fei, a spokesman for the self-organized group of fishing boat operators.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague announced July 12 it had rejected the legal basis for Beijing’s claim to about 95 percent of the whole South China Sea. Taiwan uses the same historical records cited by China to support its own claims. The court also said numerous islets, including Taiping, which is 1,400 meters long and 400 meters wide, do not qualify for exclusive economic zones in surrounding waters.

Taipei and Beijing both denounced the ruling, though they and other claimants hinted at working toward dialogue to ease tensions. The sea is valued for its fisheries, oil, natural gas and shipping lanes.

Itu Aba, in the Spratly Islands
Itu Aba, in the Spratly Islands

The Philippine government took China to the arbitral court three years ago after a standoff with Chinese fishing boats at a disputed shoal. China also occupies two reefs in the Philippine exclusive economic zone. China declined to participate in the court procedures, saying the arbitral body lacked rights to make a ruling.

Taiwan’s coast guard will monitor the fishing boats but not follow them to Taiping island, the agency’s spokesman, Shih Yi-che, said. The crews have also been briefed on maritime safety as Taiping is about 2,000 kilometers southeast from Taiwan. Once the boats reach Taiping, Shih said, they will be safe because of coast guard presence on the island.

Taiwan has built up Taiping, the largest islet in the South China Sea, with an airstrip, pier, solar energy project and humanitarian rescue center.

“We will be looking after the fishing boats to know their status,” Shih said. “We won’t send a patrol ship as support. But we respect what they’re doing.”