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Spratlys > News > English News > July 2005

Category: @News

MND mulls making atoll a tourist spot to bolster its defense

By Jimmy Chuang
Tuesday, Jul 12, 2005,Page 3

The Ministry of National Defense (MND) is considering making the Taiping Island (太平島) --also known as Itu Abu, the biggest atoll of the Spratly Islands (南沙群島) -- into a tourist attraction as a way to defend the island.

According to the proposal, if Itu Abu became an attraction visited by international tourists, the chances of it being attacked would decrease. Taiwan would be able to take advantage of this "natural protection," instead of devoting extra manpower or budget to defend the island.

"The atolls of the Spratly Islands are all easy to take but difficult to defend," a staff member from the ministry's spokesman office said. "The ministry is currently working on several solutions to defend the Itu Abu more effectively, but at this time there has been no decision yet."

Taiwan currently occupies Itu Abu, but the islet has also attracted the notice of neighboring countries, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

According to the latest edition of the Taiwan Year Book, there are 192 atolls in the region. Forty-eight of them are occupied by six countries, including Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Taiwan claims one of them, China eight, Vietnam 27, the Philippines nine, Malaysia three and Brunei one.

Vietnam has dispatched more than 2,000 soldiers to defend its claims, while China's army has assigned more than 600 soldiers to its atolls and the Philippines has 100 military personnel defending its islets.

The official, who wished to remain anonymous, said that Minister of National Defense Lee Jye (李傑) has called quite a few meetings over the past few weeks to brainstorm solutions to defend Itu Abu, regarded as the southern tip of Taiwan's territory.

According to the official, participants in the meetings -- all of whom were ministry staffers -- came up with several proposals to solve the problem peacefully, including making Itu Abu a tourist attraction and welcoming foreign tourists, resuming military defense of the island or simply withdrawing all defenses and giving the island up.

The official also said the idea of turning Itu Abu into a tourist attraction had been affirmed as a smart move by local military analysts, as the chances of a foreign country attacking a location full of foreign visitors would be significantly lower.

The official said that Itu Abu is difficult to defend because it is about 1,592km from Taiwan, and currently no air force aircraft are capable of flying directly to the island to help defend it if a military conflict were to take place. In the past, the military used to assign a platoon of marines to defend Itu Abu but these were withdrawn in 1999, and the Coast Guard Administration took over the job.

In addition, shipping supplies to the island by boat takes at least two days from Taiwan. Once near the islet, passengers and supplies must be transferred to smaller boats to land on the island, since there is no suitable harbor or airport on Itu Abu.