CSIS: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, March 22, 2016

Exploring Itu Aba: A Virtual Tour of a South China Sea Islet

On January 23, AMTI Director Gregory Poling and Ambassador José Abeto Zaide, now with the Manila Bulletin, became the first foreigners to visit Itu Aba (Taiping Dao in Chinese)—the only feature in the Spratly Islands occupied by Taiwan. They accompanied a delegation of Taiwanese experts and officials, including the ministers of foreign affairs, mainland affairs, and environmental protection. President Ma Ying-jeou made his first visit to the island five days later. Using the graphic below, you can explore each location the group visited. And even more images and video follow.

Itu Aba has a lot of attention lately thanks to its inclusion in Manila’s arbitration case against Beijing’s South China Sea claims. The Philippines’ legal team has argued that Itu Aba cannot sustain human habitation and is therefore legally a “rock,” entitled to only a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, and not an “island,” which would generate an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. Manila believes that if Itu Aba—the largest naturally formed feature in the Spratly Islands—is not an island, then none of the Spratlys are. Taipei has insisted Itu Aba is an island, and the debate has focused on details such as the availability of drinkable water and arable soil.

For more on the debate, listen to recent AMTI podcasts with Paul Reichler, lead counsel for the Philippines, and Shen Lyu-Shun, Taiwan’s representative to the United States, or read “Is There Drinkable Water and Topsoil on Itu Aba?” by Yann-huei Song.

Read on…


Featured Images

A Taiwanese air force C-130 Hercules parked on the apron at Itu Aba.

A sign in front of the administrative building greets visitors to Itu Aba.

A series of pylons stretch out into the water, marking the location of a former pier.

Featured Analysis

Will Indonesia, Provoked, Now Choose to Lead on the South China Sea?

by Aaron L. Connelly
A confrontation between Indonesian and Chinese law enforcement vessels in the South China Sea over the weekend could mark a turning point in Indonesian foreign policy under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, forcing him to choose between two of his top priorities: attracting foreign investment – particularly Chinese investment – to fund his ambitious infrastructure agenda; and a more assertive defense of Indonesian territorial integrity and sovereignty over its natural resources. That, in turn, could herald a significant shift in diplomacy over the South China Sea. Read on… 

The Philippines and Japan Sign New Defense Agreement

by Renato Cruz de Castro
Philippine defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Japanese ambassador to the Philippines Kazuhide Ishikawa on February 29 signed a new defense agreement to allow the transfer of defense equipment and technology from Japan to the Philippines. It also provides for the Philippines and Japan to conduct joint research and development, and even joint production, of defense equipment and technology. The agreement stipulates the formation of a Philippine-Japan joint committee that will manage the transfer of defense equipment and technology, as well as how the materiel and know-how can be used. Both parties expect that the agreement will not only enhance their evolving security partnership but also help Japan further develop the production and technological bases for its growing defense industry. Read on… 

China Creates a Second Chance for the ‘Quad’

By Richard Rossow and Sarah Watson
Interest in reviving the defunct U.S.-India-Japan-Australia quadrilateral strategic dialogue is mounting. Concerns about provoking China were a principal reason behind the “Quad’s” initial failure. But recent events in the South China Sea have underscored the need for increased coordination. Read on…

Managing Sino-U.S. Disagreements in the South China Sea
By Nong Hong
The South China Sea has lately evolved from a territorial and maritime dispute between only China and the other claimants to a showdown between the United States, as a strong maritime power and user of the South China Sea, and China, as a growing regional maritime power pursuing its maritime interests as a coastal state. China and the United States both have legitimate interests in the South China Sea, but diverge on issues including freedom of navigation, the Philippines-China arbitration case, state practice of international law, approaches to maritime dispute management, and land reclamation activities. The question is, will these divergences beat the two nations’ common interests and lead to a violent confrontation? My analysis suggests no. Read on…
“Self-Restraint” With Japanese Characteristics
By Adam P. Liff
Revelations of Chinese missile placements and radar facilities in the South China Sea suggest it might be an opportune time to reflect on the meaning of “self-restraint” in the Asian maritime theater. It is precisely because self-restraint appears so lacking of late, and the disputes so volatile, that it should be actively reinserted into the conversation. Read on…






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