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.

Tangled history

The Taiwan government flew a group of journalists on a two-hour flight from Taipei to Dongsha in a C-130 "Hercules" military transport plane, the U.S. military's workhorse that's been used by U.S. allies and friendly countries the world over since the 1950s.

On approach, the pilots obligingly flew across the massive coral ring a couple times at low altitude, drawing clusters of journalists to the C-130's few windows to ooh and ahh.

Once on the ground a government official gave the obligatory, pro forma re-affirmation that Dongsha was Taiwan's rightful territory. Then we made short work of the atoll's few sites: A lone Taoist temple, the new national marine park headquarters, a graveyard, a stone tablet with Chinese calligraphy, and what must be one of the shortest public bus routes on Earth — Dongsha Route No. 1 (there are no Routes 2, 3 or 4).

In one Monty Python-esque moment, government handlers had all the journalists scramble on to two vans and two minibuses, only to stop and disgorge us at the temple after a roughly three-minute drive.

Later, to get a good vantage point of the lake, our van drove about halfway down the airstrip and we trudged into low brush. A park official gave a quick rundown of the pond's flora, fauna and other features — including the unusual "upside-down jellyfish," which packs the lake, and unexploded ordnance. Asked whose ordnance, the park official looked embarrassed and said briefly, "Must be America's."

Like Taiwan proper, Dongsha was controlled by Japan in the early 20th century. American bombers attacked it in early 1945, near the end of the long, grinding Pacific campaign from Guadalcanal north to Okinawa (the U.S. military decided to skip a land invasion of Japanese-held Taiwan proper, but it did bomb strategic Japanese positions.) A small contingent of Marines even landed here in May 1945 to destroy a Japanese oil dump and barracks.

A few signs of Japan's occupation remain; to the Japanese journalists' delight, one official produced an at least 60-year-old, old-fashioned Kirin beer bottle found on the island.

Ecological collapse

Park officials painted a grim picture of the island's recent ecological trauma. Dongsha's abundant coral reefs once attracted fish of all varieties. They in turn attracted fishermen from mainland China (Dongsha is closer to the mainland city of Shantou, 140 nautical miles to the north, than to Taiwan proper, 240 nautical miles distant), Hong Kong, Vietnam and Taiwan. Eight thousand boats crowded the atoll at peak fishing times. Some used cyanide, dynamite or other destructive methods; many dumped mercury batteries in the waters around Dongsha.

The crippling blow came in 1998, when massive coral bleaching brought about by El Nino wiped out some 80 to 90 percent of Dongsha's coral reefs, turning Dongsha into what one Taiwan TV station called a "coral graveyard." To this day, only some 40 percent of those have recovered, according to Chang, the park headquarters chief.

Taiwan TV documentary on Dongsha (in Chinese):

Now, coast guard vessels enforce a fishing ban within the lagoon and within a 12-nautical-mile radius around the atoll. Instead, marine biologists ply the area, studying the atoll's slow comeback and trying to help it along. It's part of Taiwan's goal to set aside 20 percent of its territorial waters as protected zones, said Academia Sinica's Shao. "It's a good example of environmental protection," he said. "Marine resources are declining worldwide — you see it everywhere."

Coral reef experts say the waters on the east side of Dongsha atoll, as well as off Taiwan's southern tip, make for especially resilient coral reefs because of a phenomenon known as "upwelling" and the replenishing currents flowing north from the Philippines.

Such areas may prove to be worthy of global attention and study, as higher water temperatures resulting from global warming knock out vulnerable reefs around the world. (In "coral bleaching" too-hot water causes symbiotic algae to withdraw from its coral hosts, draining reefs of color and the food it needs to survive.) "The upwelling area is like a refuge for coral reefs under the influence of global warming," said Fan, the researcher.

No Chinese visitors

So far, there's not any scientific or other cooperation between China and Taiwan in Dongsha — though there's plenty of talk about it. As China makes its own fledgling efforts at environmental protection, Taiwan's management of Dongsha and its six other protected national parks could be a model. "Everybody agrees that we need to collaborate," said Academia Sinica's Shao. "But the problem is, we need to find the money, and have someone write up the proposal."

For now, the only Chinese presence is the occasional renegade fishing boat, usually a small scavenging vessel that's no match for Taiwan's coast guard ships.

Back on the patrol ship, a Coast Guard official says they still come across the occasional violator. "But when we find them, they immediately run away," he said with a chuckle.

The boat makes a long arc and churns back toward the dock, past a vivid horizon in a hue that one park official described as an "impossible blue." By the dock, a beach of white, dead coral is lined with massive concrete baffles, strewn like children's playing jacks to prevent erosion.

As we approached the dock, a Japanese journalist leaned from the boat toward the surf to snap a few last shots. An obliging coast guard official clutched the back of his life-vest to steady him with one hand; with his other hand he held the journalist's hat on his head, to prevent it from blowing out into the South China Sea.

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