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Dongsha marine park could be a model for how to handle other disputed islets.
DONGSHA, Taiwan — The Taiwan coast guard patrol ship skims over shallow, aquamarine water, white foam fanning out behind it.
Coast guard officials garbed in bright orange uniforms keep a wary eye as a group of journalists snap pictures and pace unsteadily across the back of the open boat.
One official points out from the boat at the dark patches rushing by, alternating with white coral sand — sea grass bunched at the bottom of a coral lagoon 17 miles in diameter.
Behind us, a tiny sliver of land — just big enough for an airport, a saltwater "lake" and a few scattered buildings — recedes quickly in the distance.
That sliver is Dongsha island, controlled by Taiwan but also claimed by China. It's an almost comically small patch of land in the South China Sea, the highest point of a massive coral atoll that forms a near-perfect ring — one of the roundest coral atolls worldwide, according to Taiwan officials.
Amid rising tensions over disputed islands in the South and East China seas, Dongsha is a perhaps encouraging example.
Just over a decade ago it was an over-fished ecological disaster and military outpost manned by a small contingent of Taiwanese troops on constant alert. Now it's Taiwan's first protected marine national park, where the coast guard keeps a wary eye for illegal fishing boats rather than Communist Chinese frogmen.
In line with warming cross-strait relations and Taiwan's growing environmental awareness, Dongsha is slowly making a comeback. Some are even talking of seeking UNESCO World Heritage status for Dongsha and promoting it for eco-tourism, though any such tourism would have to be sharply limited for practical reasons (right now there's only one flight a week from Taiwan's southern port city of Kaohsiung, and there's no hotel.)
"We haven't decided whether to open it yet [to tourists] said park headquarters chief Chang Chung-tso. "If we do, we'd have to strictly limit tourists — maybe to 20 people a day."
A model for the region?
Of course, Dongsha's situation is simpler because, unlike other South China sea islets and atolls, only China and Taiwan claim it.
China fiercely claims all of Taiwan as its own, but in practice it tolerates Taiwan's control of Dongsha, as well as Taiping island 650 nautical miles to the south, the largest of the Spratly islands, or Nansha. Analysts say China sees Taiwan's presence as marking both places as "Chinese territory," which is good enough for Beijing — despite the fact that they're held by a rival "China."
"Taiwan and China have very strange relations," said Shao Kwang-tsao, from the Biodiversity Research Center at Taiwan's Academia Sinica. "As long as Taiwan controls that island [Dongsha], they think it belongs to them, too. We help them conserve resources."
"For some common purposes, the [China] will agree to Taiwan taking over and doing something. For Taiping island, they have the same attitude."
Still, some say the marine park concept could be a model for other disputed islands. "Establishing Dongsha as a marine park to promote conservation is a good way to protect this area and reduce the political problems," said the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium's Tony Fan, who has conducted research at Dongsha.
The Dongsha model could allow Asian countries to give up costly, far-flung garrisons on absurdly tiny rocks and atolls, and replace them with scientific research outposts.
U.S. scientist John McManus has long argued for the establishment of a South China Sea international marine "peace park" as a confidence-building step for claimants, and earlier this year he collaborate with two Taiwanese researchers, including Academia Sinica's Shao, to expand on the concept in a paper.
"Territorial disputes have led to the establishment of environmentally destructive, socially and economically costly military outposts on many of the islands," the authors write. "Given the rapid proliferation of international peace parks around the world, it is time to take positive steps towards the establishment of a Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park."
Five countries claim all or part of the Spratlys (or Nansha in Chinese) and Vietnam disputes China's control of the Paracels (or Xisha in Chinese). China's recent statements that its claim of the entire South China Sea is now a "core interest" has inflamed tensions.
Farther afield, China and Taiwan dispute Japan's control of the Diaoyu islands (or Senkakus, in Japanese) in the East China Sea — a territorial dispute that spun out of control recently with Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain after a collision between that boat and two Japanese coast guard vessels.
In 2008, Taiwan's then-President Chen Shui-bian (now detained on corruption charges) flew to Taiping and announced the "Spratly Intiative" a plan for cooperative environmental protection and research in the region. The current president has said it supports such measures. Academia Sinica's Shao has led a feasibility study for the government on turning Taiping into a protected marine park like Dongsha. The study is now working its way through the bureaucracy.