Winning: Symbolic Victory in the Spratleys

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September 18, 2007: Taiwan is building a 1,150 meter long, and 30 meter wide air strip on Itu Aba, one of the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are a group of some 100 islets, atolls, and reefs that total only about 5 square kilometers of land, but sprawl across some 410,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. Set amid some of the world's most productive fishing grounds, the islands are believed to have enormous oil and gas reserves. Several nations have overlapping claims on the group. About 45 of the islands are currently occupied by small numbers of military personnel from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Brunei has established a fishing zone in the area, but has made no territorial claims. From time to time there have been small-scale confrontations and the occasional clash between some of these countries over the ownership of the islands. In November of 2002 most of these countries signed the "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," a vague agreement that has eased tensions is not actually legally binding. In March of 2005, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord to cooperate in exploring for oil in the islands.

Called Taiping Island by the Taiwanese, Ita Aba is one of the largest of the group, at about 120 acres (489,600 square meters). It has been in Taiwanese hands since the mid-1950s, and has largely been used as a way station for fishermen. The island is also claimed by the Vietnamese, who call it Thai Binh. Taiwan has long maintained a small military presence on the island, and the new air strip is meant to cement that control. Protests were made by Vietnam, which controls the largest group of islands, and the Philippines, which also claims Itu Aba island. The Vietnamese earlier refurbished an old South Vietnamese airstrip on Big Spratly Island.

Taiwans construction of the air strip, which is expected to be operational by the end of the year, could provoke China into action. Then again, with the U.S. Navy constantly in the area, probably not.

 


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