Taiwanese Legislators Visit Itu Aba Island

A group of Taiwanese lawmakers from the Kuomintang (KMT) political party visited Itu Aba on May 18th, staying for a few hours to inspect recently constructed military facilities and oversee exercises.

The ten legislators flew from Pingtung to Itu Aba aboard a C-130H Hercules on Saturday, May 18th. The visit was, at first, delayed due to a voting session requiring legislators’ attendance about important bills on May 17th, causing the postponement to May 18th. Joining the KMT members was Chen Chao-Tzu, a member of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

KMT Deputy Legislative Speaker Johnny Chiang stands next to a mailbox on Taiping Island. Source: CNA

The visit came two days before Lai Ching-te’s inauguration as President of Taiwan. A total of 20 legislators initially planned to go; however, one-half of the group did not attend, reportedly due to a “long day” in the hall on Friday, May 17th, where opposing lawmakers attempted to push through highly controversial revisions. 

There were no visitors from the prominent Taiwanese political party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Taiping Island 

Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba, is located in the middle of the South China Sea (SCS), around 965 miles (1,600 km) away from Taiwan and 497 miles (800 km) from China. The island is around 0.87 miles long (1.4 km) and 0.25 miles (0.4 km) wide. 

Itu Aba is the largest out of 100 in the Spratly Island chain.

Geolocation or Itu Aba Island. Source: Google Earth

The administration of Itu Aba is part of Taiwan’s Cijin Island district, Kaohsiung City, in southern Taiwan.

Under a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), Itu Aba is considered a “rock,” according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), barring it from having an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Taiwan and mainland China have rejected the decision. 

Although the island is technically part of Taiwan, other countries also claim it. Mainland China refers to it as Taiping Island as well; however, the Philippines calls it ” Ligao Island,” and the Vietnamese name is “Ba Binh.”

Taiping Island houses mostly military and other government personnel and has an airstrip plus a dock.

Analysis

Taiwan wants Taiping Island to remain under their governance, as demonstrated by not only this visit by the lawmakers but also the construction of military facilities. 

Taiping Island is crucial to Taiwan given its strategic location in the middle of the SCS, serving as an important naval port and airstrip. Itu Aba also has important radar surveillance equipment and other telecommunications satellites, allowing tracking and monitoring of global shipping lanes.

The Spratly Islands are also resource-rich in oil and gas and are plentiful fishing grounds, potentially due to the many reefs within the island chain. Ownership of Taiping Island could grant better control over the rest of the islands, as owning the airstrip and port would allow the deployment of aircraft and vessels to patrol and monitor the area.

The trip reaffirming Taiwan’s position on ownership of Taiping Island could further increase tensions between China and Taiwan, given the strategic location of the island for military presence and the natural resources. In one such case, China warned Taiwan against extending the airstrip on the island to better accommodate F-16 fighter aircraft and P-3C anti-submarine aircraft in 2022.

The visit may be a way to put pressure on newly sworn-in President Lai William and the DPP to moderate their policies towards China. The list of politicians who visited the island was made up of KMT and TPP members who favor a more moderate (the TPP) or a pro-China position (the KMT). Furthermore, they also viewed going on the trip around the time of Lai’s inauguration as favorable since it would prevent China from responding harshly before the inauguration. For example, China sent 18 aircraft around the island, and 12 crossed the Median Line and entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). China likely wanted to respond to the legislators’ trip by sending more aircraft around the island and crossing the ADIZ, but chose not to do so to prevent increasing tensions before the inauguration.

Evan Berridge
Evan Berridge
Evan is an analyst specializing in Indo-Pacific affairs and has over 5 years of experience as a freelance writer.

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