This past spring, I had the good fortune to accompany one of Taiwan's best documentary film directors (now producer of CTV (中國電視公司)'s long-running, one-of-a-kind TV documentary, Discovering China [大陸尋奇]) and production crew to Dongsha Atoll (東沙群島, aka Pratas Atoll), one of Taiwan's two holdings in the South China Sea (南中國海).
Although Dongsha remains off limits to the casual visitor, being part of the documentary team gave me a reason to be there and a seat on the 1 1/2 hour, once-a-week flight from Kaohsiung City.
Director Su (蘇志宗) was shooting material for a documentary on the Pratas scheduled for release in conjunction with a declaration of Dongsha Atoll and surrounding waters as Taiwan's 7th National Park. The DVD was released this summer. The National Park, I believe, is still in the works.
Dongsha Islet, the only part of the Atoll to break surface waters, is one of a number of islands along and around the China coast that has been garrisoned by the ROC military since the Nationalist (KMT) government, under Chiang Kai-shek, executed its "strategic withdrawal" from the Chinese mainland in 1948/49. China's new communist leaders lacked a navy to challenge ROC sovereignty offshore, and by the time they had acquired one faced other priorities (the Cold War, détente, maintaining the "status quo" in Cross-Strait relations) that set ambitions to "liberate" these scattered island outposts on the back burner.
Sovereignty over Dongsha Atoll is today "disputed" only in the sense that the reef is claimed by both China and Taiwan. As China claims sovereignty over all of Taiwan anyway, Beijing appears content to acknowledge Taiwan's authority over Dongsha pending eventual "resolution" of Taiwan's own political status.
The situation on Taiping Island (太平島, aka Itu Aba), Taiwan's other significant South China Sea property - further to the south, is much more complicated. Located at the center of the "sea of oil" imagined to underlie the area, Taiping Island and its reefs are contested by Vietnam and the Philippines ... as well as by China.
(part two to follow soon)