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Sovereignty over the Spratly Islands

Monday, June 22, 2009
By Joe Hung, Special to The China Post


The Republic of China in Taiwan claims the South China Sea is under its jurisdiction. Taipei insists any type of activity conducted in that vast sea area requires its approval. But the fact is that the government has done little to defend its sovereign rights over the area where there are four groups of coral reef archipelagoes.

The four groups are Tungsha (East Sand), Hsisha (West Sand), Chungsha (Middle Sand), and Nansha (South Sand). The first two are known worldwide as the Pratas and Paracel Islands. Middle Sand is called the Macclesfield Bank, while the last is named the Spratly Islands. According to the Constitution, all four are part of the territory of the Republic of China. However, Taipei is almost powerless to protect its interests in the area under whose waters are found an estimated 7.7 billion barrels of oil, comparable to the reserves in the Arabian Gulf.

Taipei's sovereignty over the four small archipelagoes is challenged by the People's Republic of China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. Their claim of sovereignty, except Beijing's, is untenable at best.

The only one of the island groups Taiwan still can assert total sovereignty is Tungsha (Pratas Islands), which Chinese started developing during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Qing China made the islets part of its territory in 1730. Of course, no countries in the world contested its sovereignty. In 1909, Tsai Kang, governor of Guangdong, had a stone marker erected on Tungsha Island, the largest of the Pratas group, to claim Chinese sovereignty again. The Pratas Islands were occupied by the Japanese in 1939, during the undeclared Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese made them part of the territory of Taiwan under their colonial rule. Named Shinnan-gunto (New South Islands), the Pratas group was placed under the jurisdiction of Takao-shu (Kaohsiung Prefecture). It was restored to the Republic of China as part of the province of Guangdong at the end of the Second World War in 1945.

After the Chinese civil war, however, the government of the Republic of China which was moved to Taipei placed the Pratas group under the jurisdiction of the special municipality of Kaohsiung in 1979. A national monument and a corridor were set up on the main island on June 30, 1989 and May 19, 1992 respectively, to assert sovereignty over the entire archipelago. A hospital, power station, and runway have been established, too. A service center was also opened to provide help for fishermen operating in the South China Sea. There are three jetties and an onshore service center which gives directions to fishing boats.

Incidentally, the special municipality of Kaohsiung extends its jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands as well.

Chinese discovered the Spratlys much earlier, as early as during the Later Han Dynasty (25-220). The History of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) records naval patrols of the waters off Nansha (Spratly Islands). In the official maps of the Ming Dynasty, the Spratlys are marked as part of Chinese territory. They are so marked repeatedly in official maps published from 1724 to 1817.

French marines occupied the largest of the Spratlys, Itu Aba now named Taiping, and eight other islets in 1933. The government of the Republic of China in Nanjing lodged protests with the French government. The island group was also occupied by the Japanese in 1939 and placed under the jurisdiction of Takao-shu as part of the Shinnan-gunto. Along with Hsisha (Paracel Islands), it was reoccupied by the navy of the Republic of China in 1946. National monuments were set up to reassert sovereignty. Both archipelagoes were placed under the jurisdiction of the province of Guangdong. Itu Aba was renamed Taiping, after the christened name of the destroyer, the flagship of a flotilla sent to reoccupy the Spratlys. Woody Island, the largest of the Paracels, was renamed Yunghsing (Eternal Prosperity) after the LST (landing ship tank) that landed the marines for reoccupation.

In August 1955 a French warship landed officers and men on Woody Island to claim sovereignty for France and expelled Chinese fishermen back to Hainan Island. The Chinese national monument was destroyed. South Vietnam, which declared independence and claimed sovereignty transferred from France, invaded and occupied two other islands of the Paracels in March and August 1956.

On March 1, 1956, Thomas Cloma, a Filipino mercantile marine school superintendent, landed with his cadets on Taiping and claimed they discovered altogether nine islands for the Philippines. He proclaimed the occupation of his newly found islets on May 15. Two weeks later, on May 29, the People's Republic reiterated its sovereignty over all four island groups in the South China Sea. As a countermeasure, Taiwan sent three flotillas to the Spratlys.

The first flotilla patrolled between June 2 and 14, 1956. Marines were landed on Taiping and two other islets. The second flotilla completed the cruise from June 29 to July 22. The last flotilla, which made the patrol between September 24 and October 5, stopped a Filipino ship commanded by Filemon Cloma, aboard which were found weapons. The Filipino skipper, a younger brother of Thomas Cloma, was brought to the flagship of the flotilla for questioning. He said he was on a “private visit” to Taiping his brother claimed for the Philippines. Subsequently, in December, Manila announced Cloma's voyage had nothing to do with the government of the Philippines. In view of the possibilities that the Filipinos might return after Taiwan's naval force left, Taipei decided to station a marine platoon on Taiping at the end of 1956. The stationing of a defense force has since continued. (To be continued.)

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