Taiwanese citizen becomes first resident in Taiping island
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou mails a letter on the disputed Itu Aba or Taiping island in the South China Sea, January 28, 2016 Reuters

A Taiwanese citizen has registered herself as the first resident of the Spratlys island chain in the disputed South China Sea.

Chu Mei-ling, who serves as a nurse at the medical facility on the Itu Aba island, which Taiwan calls Taiping, transferred her household registration from Kaohsiung to Taiping.

"I want to declare Taiwan's sovereignty. Taiping Island belongs to Taiwan," AsiaOne quoted her saying. Her announcement coincided with Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's controversial travel to Taiping island.

The Taiwanese coast guard said as of January 21, Chu is a registered resident of Kaohisung Cijin District's Nansha No. 1, the only address on Taiping Island, which at 46 hectares is the largest natural island in the Spratlys.

Many countries in the region claim sovereignty over the Spratlys and Paracel island chains in the South China sea. China's vigorous building of seven man-made islands near the Spratly archipelago and drilling activities in the region have sparked tension in recent years.

Chu says she was inspired by patriotic sentiments after the territorial dispute heated up and wanted to "let the international community know that Taiping Island belongs to its residents." She says she is not motivated by any incentives or benefits.

President Ma was "surprised" when she told him about the residence change and thanked her, the report said.

The medical facility in Taiping has two more staff and they too were likely to change residence to Taiping, Chu said.

Most of the 180 people living in the island are Taiwanese coastguard personnel.

South China Sea conflict

The overlapping claims of sovereignty over two island chains by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei has made the South China Sea a sensitive region. The United States has strategic interests in the region as well, and it offers a counter balance against Beijing's influence in the waters.

China lays claim to both the island chains stating that these were integral part of the empire from ages. In 1947 China formalised the claims by issuing a map showing the islands in its territory. Vietnam which contested China's claims saying its rule over Paracels and Spratlys dates back to the 17th century, however, lost the military tussle over the island chains to China.

In Taiwan's case, the claim is a bit more complicated. Technically its territorial claims within the U-shaped line around South China Sea are same as that of China's but Taipei shies away from aggressively asserting the claims.

The US has adopted a stern line against China's land reclamation, construction and militarisation in these islands but China staunchly defends its claim to sovereignty in the region.

The US too has US military facilities in Southeast Asia, in Philippines and Thailand. It also has stationed its Poseidon sub-hunters and electronic warfare platforms in Malaysia and Singapore. In the regional geopolitical power balance the US presence in the region is crucial for its allies but it is an irritant in diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington.

Strategic and economic importance

-- The mostly uninhabited islands in South China Sea are of crucial strategic importance. The two major island chains -- the Paracels and the Spratlys -- are thought to harbour natural resources around them. China hopes the oil and natural gas reserves in the region could ensure its energy security.

--The sea is also a major trading route through which ship-borne trade worth $5 trillion passes every year.

-- For energy hungry China the sea routes in South China Sea are crucial as most of its imported oil flows through these routes.

-- Control over the territory allows Beijing to prevent the US from expanding its sphere of influence in the region.