Fishermen from three Taiwanese fishing boats set foot on the disputed Taiping Island in the South China Sea on Tuesday morning as part of a planned trip.
Four boats departed for the island on July 20 to highlight Taiwan’s sovereignty after an international tribunal ruled that Taiping is legally a rock, not an island. The fourth vessel, carrying three reporters from Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV who were along to cover the voyage, did not dock with the other three.
Also known as Itu Aba Island, Taiping Island is part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The island is administrated by Taiwan, but it is also claimed by mainland China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, one must apply for permission to land on Taiping Island 45 days in advance. Three of the four Taiwanese fishing boats that did not have authorization asked Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration (CGA) to give them access to the island for “emergency shelter.”
On Tuesday morning, the fishermen were allowed to set foot on the pier but did not enter military-controlled areas. Troops stationed on the island provided the crew with food and 21 canisters of fresh water from island well No.5.
An individual speaking on behalf of the fishermen called their symbolic trip a success because they managed to set foot on the island and get fresh water.
“I think this action was very successful since it attracted a great amount of attention from people at home," said Qiangfei Luo. "The online approval rate of this action is over 80 percent, so I would say this was a huge success in that it has brought attention to Taiping Island.”
The four fishing ships involved began their return voyages at 11 a.m. and are on schedule to arrive in Tungkang, Taiwan, this weekend.
Reporters denied landing
According to Qiangfei Luo, the fishermen leading the trip did not want the fourth vessel to land, so as to avoid unnecessary suspicion.
“Since there are criticisms out there which could distort our intentions, we took the initiative to make the sacrifice and decide not to let the boat with the reporters to enter the port," said Luo. "This is what we chose to do, not requested by the government. It is to show that, unlike what the rumors said, we are responding to the public instead of spying or mediating for the Communist party.”
Phoenix TV, which has financial connections with China, is the only news organization that managed to send along its reporters. Other reporters, including those from Voice of America, were denied the access because of incomplete procedures.
The Taiwanese government has said it does not support civilian attempts to land on the island or any similar action to claim sovereignty. Taiwan government spokesperson Zhenyuan Tong said on Monday that civilian action to safeguard sovereignty may not have a positive impact on Taiwan’s role in the international community.
“If there was not any garrison on Taiping Island or official announcement made in the past, then there might be some need to claim the sovereignty," he said. "But even if there is such a need, it is the government official that should take this role. Civilian claim is not effective according to the international law.”
Taiwan's Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that Taiping Island is not open to ordinary citizens, and that only national defense, facility management and academic research personnel can apply for a landing permit.
“People charged with offenses against internal security, people from mainland China who have held Taiwanese identity for less than 20 years — 10 years for Hong Kong and Macau — and people with dual citizenship” are not allowed to land on Taiping Island, a ministry statement declared.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service.