The ROC government invited domestic and foreign journalists on March 23 to visit Taiping Island to help the international community understand that Taiping Island in the Nansha Islands is indeed an island, not just a rock. President Ma Ying-jeou also held an international press conference at 19:00 at Air Force Songshan Base Command after the press corps went back to Taipei, reaffirming ROC sovereignty over Taiping Island.
A transcript of President Ma's remarks follows:
Good evening. Today you took a somewhat arduous seven-hour flight to see Taiping Island. As you know, seeing is believing, and our goal in arranging the tour was to help you see that Taiping Island is indeed an island, not a rock. We hope as well that the tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and the Philippine government and its lawyers, will also understand that Taiping Island fully meets the definition of an island as set forth in Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), namely, that it can sustain human habitation and economic life of its own. Therefore, in addition to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters, the Republic of China is entitled to claim a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf. Here are 10 reasons why:
First of all, both at present and in the past, Taiping Island has sustained human habitation and economic activity. The China Sea Directory, published in 1879 by the British Admiralty’s Hydrographic Office, records that early Chinese fishermen were seen at Taiping Island gathering sea cucumbers and turtle shells for sale to support themselves. As the 20th century opened, Japanese landed on the island to mine sulfur and build a seafood cannery. Today, a plaque left by the Japanese company still stands. In 1946, when the Republic of China regained control over Taiping Island, the remains of an ancient Chinese temple were found there. Government personnel have been stationed on the island continuously since 1956. These facts serve to show that Taiping Island is indeed suitable for human habitation and sustains economic life of its own.
Second, the Philippines has stated that the personnel on the island are all military personnel and not civilians, and as such their presence cannot therefore be taken to indicate human habitation. This is a calculated twisting of the wording of Article 121 of UNCLOS, which requires that an island must be able to “sustain human habitation.” As long as it can sustain human habitation, the identity of those living on an island—their profession, gender, age, ethnicity—is not a question. Nowhere does Article 121 of UNCLOS say that military personnel may not be counted as people. The Philippines’ lawyers have deliberately misinterpreted the law. Moreover, the personnel stationed by the ROC on Taiping Island today are not military personnel, but rather coast guard personnel, medical personnel, and researchers. Thus, the island fits the definition of sustaining human habitation and having economic life of its own.
Third, the Philippines has claimed that some of the supplies used by people of the island are shipped in, meaning that the island’s resources are insufficient. This is absurd. The area of Taiping Island is 0.51 square kilometers (or 51 hectares), but the natural vegetation, together with the crops and animals raised, are entirely sufficient to support the people living there. But to allow those stationed there to enjoy a better quality of life, and prevent the overconsumption of island resources, importing certain goods has its benefits. This is in line with our measures to make Taiping Island a low-carbon, ecologically sound island. This does not mean that Taiping Island cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of its own.
Fourth, a key to Taiping Island’s being able to sustain human habitation is that the island, unique amongst the several hundred in the Nanshas, is blessed with an abundance of high-quality fresh water. Geological evidence shows that the formation of Taiping Island has left it with abundant and stable groundwater that is untainted by seawater. At present, there are four wells in use that provide 65 metric tons of water daily. Well No. 5 produces the highest quality water, with total dissolved solids of 418-427 mg/L, approaching the quality of Evian, which has 330 mg/L. This well provides 3 metric tons of water daily, or enough to supply 1,500 people with water for their daily needs. The salinity of water from Well No. 5 is less than 0.1 percent, and can be drunk straight from the well. Water from the other wells has a salinity of 1 to 3‰, much less than seawater, which is 33 to 35‰. The water can be used for cooking, bathing, cleaning, and irrigating. Water quality analysis shows that the salt component of the well water is leached from the soil, and not contaminated by seawater infiltration.
Fifth, there are many historic records attesting to the presence of natural fresh water on Taiping Island. The aforementioned China Sea Directory speaks of early Chinese fishermen living on and tapping into the freshwater wells of Taiping Island. It states that the water from wells on this island is better than that found in other places.
In 1937, Hitoshi Hiratsuka, a technician based in Taichu Prefecture, today’s Taichung City, penned a report on Taiping Island, in which he stated that the island had abundant potable water for use by fishing vessels, or on the island. In 1946, an ROC naval expedition reclaimed the island, and in its report of 1947 noted that there are numerous wells on the island with excellent water quality. The 1994 study “Water quality in the South China Sea and waters surrounding Taiping Island,” by ROC Professor Chen I-ming (陳一鳴), states that two sources of fresh water on Taiping Island provide water of a higher quality than most rivers or lakes.
Sixth, the Philippines contended that the water on Taiping Island is not potable, quoting a 1994 botanical report on the island by Taiwan scholars, but intentionally ignoring professional quality tests conducted on water drawn from the island’s wells by Professor Chen I-ming as part of the same survey. The Philippine's counsel concealed the truth in an attempt to mislead the tribunal judges. A botanical report would focus on plants while a water quality report would focus on fresh water. Yet the Philippines cited the botanical report to counter the report by water quality experts. This is clearly disingenuous.
Seventh, a second key factor underpinning the ability of Taiping Island to sustain human life is that it has fertile soil formed over 1,000 years by natural forces. The topsoil is some 20 centimeters thick, and composed of soil aggregate rich in organic material. At a depth of 20 to 40 centimeters is a layer of guano, making for fertile soil amenable to the growth of both indigenous plants and agricultural products. In other words, the soil on Taiping Island is definitely not, as the Philippine's counsel claims, formed from wind-eroded coral reefs and unsuitable for farming. Moreover, it is native soil—not transported to Taiping Island from some other location.
Eighth, because of its favorable natural environment, Taiping Island has as many as 108 indigenous plant species. These include 147 large tropical trees up to 20 meters tall, with girths of up to 100 centimeters (and one as large as 907 centimeters), and up to 100 years old, and one specimen 150 years old. From a distance, the island looks like a forest park on the sea. Other wild crops, such as coconut, papaya, and plantain grow in abundance all year round. About 1,500 coconuts and 200-300 kilograms each of papayas and plantains are produced each year. These wild plants alone, plus fish from the surrounding waters, can provide basic sustenance for people living on the island.
Ninth, personnel stationed on the island have long utilized its fertile soil and water resources to cultivate nearly 20 types of vegetables and fruits, producing loofah gourds, sweet potatoes, bitter melons, calabashes, winter melons, watermelons, pumpkins, corn, okra, Ceylon spinach, celery, asparagus, bokchoi, cabbage, sweet basil, sweet potato leaves, chili peppers, and radishes throughout the year. In addition, chickens (129 in number), goats (14), and dogs (6) live on the island. The dogs act as nighttime guards while the goats, chickens, and eggs are a source of food to meet the nutritional needs of people on the island. Many of the ingredients used in daily meals, including sweet potatoes, chicken, eggs, fish, mutton, vegetables, and fruits are locally produced.
Tenth, the Philippines contends that since rice is not grown on Taiping Island, but is transported from Taiwan, the island is therefore incapable of supporting human life over the long term. This argument is absurd. Whether rice is grown is a matter of choice. We can if we want to, except that it would require more water and land. If we do not grow rice, can we not grow sweet potatoes? Or potatoes? Will people perish if they do not eat rice? If rice has to be transported from Taiwan, does that mean Taiping Island is not an island? Let me give two examples. Rice is the staple food on Hong Kong’s Victoria Island and in Singapore, but it is not grown in either place. It is imported. Can we say then that these are not islands?
You have seen on your trip that Taiping Island is definitely capable of sustaining human habitation and economic life of its own. So persuant to UNCLOS, Article 21, Paragraph 2, it is entitled to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles as well as rights associated with a continental shelf. Yet the Philippines has presented several preposterous arguments designed to mislead the judges at the international tribunal, stating that Taiping Island does not have water or soil, cannot sustain even one human, relies on external supplies for all its provisions, and, therefore, should not enjoy any maritime rights beyond its territorial sea. These arguments are groundless.
I think that the Philippines may have repeatedly made these false statements because they have not explored the history and geography of Taiping Island in depth, let alone personally set foot on the island to explore its environment. As President of the Republic of China, through the major domestic and foreign media, I formally invite the Philippines to send representatives or their lawyers on a tour of Taiping Island. We also welcome the five tribunal judges to make a site visit, so that they may see for themselves whether Taiping Island is an island that has fresh water, can produce crops and raise chickens and goats, and can sustain human life and economic activity.
Ladies and gentlemen, I want to stress once again that the goal of the ROC's management of Taiping Island is to transform it into an island for peace and rescue operations, as well as an ecologically friendly and low-carbon island. All our activities are in accordance with international norms and regulations, including UNCLOS, and will not raise tensions in the region, nor do they contradict the US appeal for three halts: to halt further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, or militarization on disputed features. We have no military purpose there—as early as 2000 we replaced our marines with Coast Guard personnel—have not engaged in land reclamation, and have not built new facilities, beyond renovating existing ones. The ROC experience on Taiping Island, then, can be said to be a model for the South China Sea, well worth international media attention.
Another important development to report is that the South China Sea working group of the Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law has completed an amicus curiae brief on the legal status of Taiping Island rebutting the Philippines’ specious claims point by point. Amicus curiae means "friend of the court"—someone who has a strong interest in the subject of an action, but is not a party to the action, and submits a relevant legal opinion. That document has already been sent to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and will provide the five tribunal judges with accurate information about Taiping Island, helping them avoid making a decision that runs counter to international law and damages the interests of the Republic of China. The amicus brief can be found on the website of the Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law.