TAIPEI/HONG KONG- Taiwan is building a $100 million port next to an airstrip on the lone island it occupies in the disputed South China Sea, a move that is drawing hardly any flak from the most assertive player in the bitterly contested waters - China.
The reason, say military strategists, is that Itu Aba could one day be in China's hands should it ever take over Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province.
While Itu Aba, also called Tai Ping, is small, no other disputed island has such sophisticated facilities. Its runway is the biggest of only two in the Spratly archipelago that straddles the South China Sea, and the island has its own fresh water source.
"Taipei knows it is the only claimant that (China) will not bother, so it is free to upgrade its facilities on Tai Ping without fear of criticism from China," said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Hawaii-based East-West Center think tank.
"China would protect Taiwan's garrisons if necessary."
The upgraded facilities on Itu Aba should be finished late next year or earlier, officials from Taiwan's defence and transport ministries said, replacing an existing wharf that can only handle small vessels.
That would give Taiwan a port able to accommodate 3,000-tonne naval frigates and coastguard cutters while improvements are being made to the 1,200-metre (3,940-foot) long runway for its Hercules C-130 transport planes, they told Reuters.
Officials said the new port was not just a demonstration of sovereignty but also a way to support a trade dependent economy while helping Taiwanese deep-sea fishermen and marine and mineral research in the area. About $5 trillion in ship-borne goods pass through the South China Sea every year.
China and Taiwan share claims to virtually the entire South China Sea, a legacy of the Chinese civil war when the Communists split from the Nationalists and eventually took control of the Chinese mainland in 1949. The Nationalists settled on Taiwan, and still claim to be the legitimate rulers of greater China.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the potentially oil-rich South China Sea.
While China-Taiwan ties have warmed since Ma Ying-jeou was elected Taiwan president in 2008, there has been no political reconciliation or a lessening of military distrust. China has never ruled out force to bring Taiwan under its control.
But if conflict ever broke out in the Spratlys, analysts and military attaches believe China would seek to protect Itu Aba as its own, strongly aware of its strategic value.
The Spratlys are one of the main flashpoints in the South China Sea, where military fortifications belonging to all claimants but Brunei are dotted across some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
China for example occupies eight shoals and reefs but its strategists have long bristled at Vietnam's two dozen holdings. Manila occupies eight reefs and islands and Malaysia seven. Incidents at sea in recent years, such as ships getting rammed or attempted blockades, have usually involved China against the Philippines or Vietnam.
Zhang Zhexin, a research fellow on Taiwan issues at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, said Beijing would not have a problem with Taiwan developing Itu Aba.
"Taiwan itself is Chinese territory anyway," he said. "How can we have a territorial dispute within our own country? Of course Taiwan is part of China, so that includes all parts of China, including Tai Ping Island."