Story highlights

Taiwan occupies Taiping island in the disputed waters of the South China Sea

China's massive land reclamation projects have made neighbors nervous

Taiwan challenges a maritime arbitration case brought by the Philippines

Taiping island, South China Sea CNN  — 

Taiwan claims to have continuously occupied this postage stamp-sized island in the azure waters of the South China Sea for 60 years.

But it wasn’t until this week, that the government invited journalists to see the tiny place firsthand.

Also known as Itu Aba, Taiping island consists of little more than a 1,360 meter long airstrip bordered on two sides by palm trees and white sandy beaches.

But that is enough for Taiwan to make its case in the growing struggle for control of this hotly disputed body of water – where $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through annually.

Showdown in the South China Sea: How did we get here?

Island, not a rock

Taiping Island “is entitled to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles,” outgoing Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou told journalists on Wednesday – which gives a country special rights over the seabed, and marine resources like fish.

However, there at least six countries laying competing claims to different parts of the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

China, with a large U shape on its maps, lays claim to virtually all of the contested waters.

To cement its stance, Beijing has been building man-made islands atop seven reefs it controls in the Spratly archipelago, a series of atolls far closer to the Philippines and Malaysia than mainland China.

These massive land reclamation projects have made the neighbors nervous.

“Like most countries we are opposed to militarization or military expansionism in the area,” said Bruce Linghu, deputy foreign minister of Taiwan.

The diplomat expressed concern that China’s ambitious island-building could trigger “possible confrontations or conflicts.”

 A lighthouse is pictured on Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba, in the South China Sea.


In fact, the U.S. and Chinese navies have already engaged in several rounds of shadow-boxing here.

Last May, CNN’s Jim Sciutto accompanied a U.S. Navy spy plane on a flight over several of the man-made islands.

“This is the Chinese navy, this is the Chinese navy. Please go away,” a Chinese radio operator announced in one of at least eight warnings to the aircraft.

In October, the Chinese government summoned the U.S. ambassador to Beijing to issue a formal protest after the destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-controlled Subi Reef in the Spratlys.

The destroyer’s voyage was “a very serious provocation, politically and militarily” China’s ambassador to the U.S. told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview.