ITU ABA, South China Sea — The largest natural feature of the Spratly Islands, the hotly disputed archipelago in the South China Sea, is a forested, sun-drenched oval of land, cleaved by a single runway that gives the place the appearance of a raw coffee bean floating in bright blue water.
Called Itu Aba, it is occupied not by China, which has aggressively asserted its territorial claims in the sea, but by its archrival, the self-governing democracy of Taiwan.
The two broadly agree that there is a historical Chinese stake in the South China Sea, but they diverge radically over how to exercise stewardship over it.
China has built artificial islands out of the reefs and shoals it controls and, according to analysts pouring over satellite photographs, armed them with radars and missiles.
Taiwan, by contrast, is soliciting competitive bids from companies to rebuild its small hospital here, bolstering sorely needed search and rescue facilities in the event of maritime disaster in the heavily trafficked sea.
This “should become a center for humanitarian aid,” the director general of Taiwan’s Coast Guard, Lee Chung-wei, explained during a recent visit to Itu Aba, a mere 110 acres in size, or 46 hectares.
He was there, accompanied by other officials and a few journalists, to observe a training exercise involving a simulated collision of ships in the heavily trafficked waters.
“In the case of a real collision, the disaster could be huge and would require a huge amount of medical energy to solve the problem, “ Mr. Lee told reporters, “so we are trying to upgrade our capability as much as possible.”
In Chinese, Itu Aba is known as Taiping, which means peaceful or tranquil, which happened to be the name of the warship that landed the first Chinese government official here in 1946. (More on that later.)
Taiwanese sovereignty over the place, which is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam, is a matter of national pride. That pride, though, suffered a blow two years ago from which it is still struggling to recover.
An international arbitration panel effectively rebuffed Taiwan’s meticulously crafted argument that this was, in fact, an island under definitions set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The panel, adjudicating a claim brought by the Philippines against China’s claims, declared it a “rock” instead, meaning it cannot sustain human habitation or economic activity. The demotion from being an “island” means that Taiwan can no longer