Have you ever been browsing online maps in East Asia and wondered what that odd disc-shaped landmark lying in the South China Sea between Hong Kong and Taiwan is? Zoom in a little closer with a satellite, and you get:
It’s certainly an atoll, and there’s even a small island on the west side of the atoll. But is there anything on that island?
How about an airport? Military buildings! Even tennis courts! This is Pratas Island, the above-ground portion of a submerged atoll that forms an island group of the same name in English and known in Chinese as Dongsha Qundao (Tungsha Tao). Only Pratas/Dongsha is always above water; the other two islands forming the rest of the atoll, North and South Vereker, are submerged at high tide. Other than a short Japanese occupation during World War II, Pratas has been Chinese-controlled since at least the Han dynasty. Control over Pratas is currently held by the Republic of China, i.e. Taiwan, and thus is also claimed by the People’s Republic of China as part of its integral territory.
The Pratas Islands are just one group out of the many small islands and shoals in the South China Sea disputed by various countries as they look to claim island groups in order gain access to the resources in the waters surrounding them. The largest and most famous of these groups are the Spratly Islands, which have six different governments jostling for jurisdiction over all or part of just 4 km2 of land area in order to gain control over 425 000 km2 of ocean and the accompanying fishing and petroleum exploitation rights. As the dispute over the Pratas Islands is between two governments claiming to be the governments of the same state, it represents a different type of dispute in which possession is just as important as a moral/military victory rather than an economic one (although the last one doesn’t hurt, either).
The various disputed islands of Southeast Asia.The Pratas Islands are to the north of the map. The Paracel Islands (held by the PRC, claimed by Vietnam and the ROC) lie to the southwest. Scarborough Reef (held by the Philippines, claimed by the PRC and ROC) lies to the southeast. The Spratly Islands are the large archipelago highlighted in the south end of the South China Sea, disputed between the PRC, ROC, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. Source: Yeu Ninje, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:South_China_Sea.jpg. Licensed under theCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Licence.
At just 2.8 km long and 0.8 km wide, Pratas Island is nevertheless the largest island in the middle of the South China Sea, covered in sand, grass and scrub. The atoll is rich in coral and marine life. As with many of China’s offshore islands, Pratas was held by the ROC in the wake of the Chinese Revolution. Originally the islands were under military control, but today they legally exist as part of the city of Kaohsiung and serve as an outpost for the Taiwanese coast guard, guarding the southern entry point to the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and mainland China as well as the western entry to the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines. Pratas hosts an airport, military post office, hospital, library, temple and barracks along with a small power station to operate them. As well, there are sleeping quarters and supply services for fishermen in the region who visit during March and April, and three jetties have been built along the shore. In 1989, a stone monument was dedicated symbolically reasserting Taiwanese sovereignty (as well, the monument functions as a triangulation point for surveys). Most recently, the atoll was designated a marine national park in 2006 by Taiwan, another measure to ensure the island will not be touched by outsiders.
Central News Agency (2011). Taiwan asserts sovereignty over South China Sea islands. Want China Times, 18 April 2011. Available at http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?cid=1101&MainCatID;=11&id;=20110418000055. Accessed 24 April 2011.
Guo R.(2007). Dongsha Qundao (Archipelago). Territorial Disputes and Resource Management: A Global Handbook, 99-100. New York: Nova Science Publishers.
Hung, J. (2009). Sovereignty over the Spratly Islands. China Post, 22 June 2009. Available at http://www.chinapost.com.tw/commentary/the-china-post/joe-hung/2009/06/22/213223/p1/Sovereignty-over.htm. Accessed 24 April 2011.
Pike, J. (2009). Pratas Island. Global Security, 20 April 2009. Available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/taiwan/pratas.htm. Accessed 24 April 2011.