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Taiwan makes environmental push in disputed South China Sea

Eager not to be forgotten as a claimant in the South China Sea, as it was in July when China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to confidence-building guidelines, Taiwan plans to set up an ocean research center and share its findings with others.

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Taiwan’s government, a claimant to the disputed South China Sea but unable to make noise diplomatically as China squelches its international profile, is trying a new approach to draw attention to and ease tension over the resource-rich region: environmental preservation.

The Marine National Park Headquarters in the southern city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s jumping-off point for the South China Sea, plans to set up an ocean research center on a coral atoll under its control in the disputed region and share findings with other interested governments.

Officials in Taiwan will then invite other claimants to share in future research, which they say may show that the fisheries they’re fighting over have been depleted. The government may eventually let tourists visit the 1.74 square-kilometer Dongsha atoll now populated by 200 Coast Guard patrolmen, tropical fish, and the occasional sea turtle.

Taiwan can hardly assert itself in the region as other South China Sea disputants have done, using harsh diplomatic language and naval clashes. So the environmental push means staying in the fight – without fighting.

Taiwan's tenuous relationship with China, another claimant of the disputed sea, blocks it from negotiating with other governments through the usual diplomatic channels. But environmental research covering the entire disputed area could turn favorable attention to Taiwan while not getting it in any trouble. Other governments would be reminded at the same time that Taiwan is sticking to its claim.

“Environmental protection is the least sensitive issue, and it’s nonaggressive if you talk about national parks or inviting the tourism industry, so it will be easily accepted not only by the People's Republic of China but also other neighboring countries,” said Nathan Liu, associate international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan.

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