TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan will increase its coast guard presence on a small island in the disputed South China Sea Spratlys, the coast guard chief said Wednesday, as rival China asserts its claims to the same chain.
Taiwan has largely kept out of disputes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have overlapping claims.
Rival claims to the island by Taiwan and China go back to before defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war with the Communists in 1949. China to this day considers self-ruled Taiwan a renegade province, to be united with the mainland by force if necessary.
Coast guard chief Wang Chung-yi said Taiwan's construction of a port on the island of Itu Aba, or Taiping as it is known in Taiwan, remains on track and will be able to support permanently stationed 100-ton ships and allow 2,000- and 3,000-ton vessels to dock.
He would not be drawn on China's claims to the island but said the port, with an airstrip and hospital, was part of Taiwan's efforts to bolster its humanitarian aid role.
"(When the port is done, the staff) will probably increase by nearly 30 to 40 people, including those onshore and at sea," he told reporters.
Currently the island supports around 180 people with half being marine-trained coast guard personnel who have had oversight of the 46-hectare (114-acre) island since 2000.
Itu Aba was now the fourth largest island in the Spratlys after China's land reclamation work on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, Wang said.
In a rebuff to China, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in Boston this week the United States military would sail and fly wherever international law allowed, including the disputed South China Sea.
Carter spoke after a two-day meeting between U.S. and Australian foreign and defense ministers at which the long-time allies agreed to expand defense cooperation and expressed "strong concerns" over Beijing's building on disputed islands.
(Reporting by J.R. Wu; Editing by Nick Macfie)