Taiwan will launch oil exploration efforts in waters off Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) next year, in a move that is likely to raise tensions with other claimants to a series of islets in the South China Sea.
During a meeting at the legislature in Taipei yesterday, Bureau of Energy officials confirmed that the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Bureau of Mines, in cooperation with CPC Corp, Taiwan (CPC, 台灣中油), would send ships to waters near Itu Aba to conduct exploration for potential oil resources next year.
Bureau of Energy Director-General Jerry Ou (歐嘉瑞) told the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee that a monthly budget of NT$17 million (US$583,670) would be allocated to fund the efforts.
Ou said that as Taiwan is almost entirely dependent on imports for its oil supply, it was imperative for the nation to diversify its energy sources.
Though unproven, the South China Sea is believed to contain important oil and gas resources. Taiwan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all lay claim to parts of the area.
Administered by Taiwan, Itu Aba is the largest islet in the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島). It lies about 1,400km from Greater Kaohsiung.
In 2008, Taiwan finished constrcution of a 1,150m airstrip on the island. Earlier this year, the Coast Guard Administration — which is mandated with defending sovereignty over the island — augmented its equipment on Itu Aba with a supply of T63 120mm mortar systems and L/60 40mm anti-aircraft guns, sparking protests among other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
Asking for a progress report, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方), a strong supporter of Taiwan playing a more muscular role in the area, was assured that the plan had advanced past the “paperwork phase” and would be initiated as early as next month.
It has yet to be confirmed whether the exploration boats will be accompanied by coast guard vessels.
KMT Legislator Chen Cheng-hsiang (陳鎮湘) said the government should actively mine the waters near the Spratlys and the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) and establish a forward base in the area to oversee energy, fishing and environmental protection.
He also said a multilateral center should be established to lower the risks of sovereignty disputes with other countries.
On March 22, two coast guard speedboats were dispatched to intercept a pair of Vietnamese patrol vessels that had entered waters near Taiping, prompting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to file a protest with Hanoi.
Two other ships entered waters near the island on March 26. The coast guard subsequently denied reports that shots had been fired during the incident.