Taiwan president Ma to visit disputed South China Sea island for first time

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Taiwan’s outgoing president, Ma Ying-jeou, will visit a disputed island in the South China Sea on Thursday, his first trip to the Taipei-controlled territory amid rising tensions in the region.

The announcement comes just weeks after the Taiwanese Coast Guard drove off a Vietnamese fishing boat near Taiping Island, a Taiwan-administered islet in the Spratly archipelago.

The chain is also claimed in part or whole by Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

“The Taiping Island is an inherent part of the Republic of China’s territory,” Charles Chen, spokesman of the presidential office, said in a statement Wednesday, using the official name for Taiwan.

The purpose of the trip was to visit Taiwanese personnel stationed there ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, Chen said.

Taiwan has just finished a $100 million port upgrade and built a new lighthouse on Itu Aba, which has its own airstrip, a hospital and fresh water.

The only time a Taiwanese president has visited Taiping Island was in 2008, when former leader Chen Shui-bian made the trip.

The United States said later Wednesday that the trip is “extremely unhelpful” and will not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes. A spokesperson for the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) made the remarks via email. The AIT is the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taipei in the absence of formal diplomatic ties.

Ma, of the China-friendly ruling Kuomintang, has less than four months left in his term and will be succeeded by Tsai Ing-wen, of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who won the presidential election in a landslide victory earlier this month.

The presidential office invited Tsai to join the trip, but the DPP said it did not plan to send any representative.

Taiwan has been boosting its presence in Taiping, the largest island in the Spratlys.

As part of efforts to strengthen defense capabilities, it inaugurated a solar-powered lighthouse, and expanded an airstrip and a pier on the island late last year.

Taiwanese officials have also flown to the island in recent years including interior and defense ministers.

China is seen by other Spratly claimants as the biggest threat in the South China Sea.

The Philippines and Vietnam have complained that China is becoming increasingly aggressive in the region.

Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, said he expected the Philippines and Vietnam to lodge a strong protest, likely seeing the visit as a violation of their claimed sovereignty over Itu Aba.

“But I do think it is unlikely they would stage a similar visit involving a senior political figure going to one of their own occupied islands … that would risk inflaming relations with China and neither want to go that far,” Storey said.

Asked to comment on Ma’s planned visit, the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated that China and Taiwan had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the waterway, through which $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes every year.

“Safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as safeguarding the overall interests of the Chinese nation is the common responsibility and obligation of compatriots across the straits,” spokesman Ma Xiaoguang told reporters in Beijing.

The claims of both China and Taiwan are based on maps from the late 1940s belonging to the Kuomintang, when they ruled all of China. The Kuomintang fled to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated in a civil war with China’s communists.

Beijing deems Taiwan a wayward province to be retaken by force if necessary.

But it has appeared unfazed by Taiwan’s upgrading work on Itu Aba. Military strategists say that is because Itu Aba could fall into China’s hands should it ever take over Taiwan.

Taiwan for its part has tended not to take sides with China in the South China Sea, despite the historical connection, given the political mistrust between them and because of its need to maintain good ties with the United States.

Dustin Wang, a longtime Taiwanese scholar on the South China Sea and who has visited Itu Aba, said one of Ma’s goals was to highlight the island’s civilian uses.

“Ma will demonstrate that facilities on the island, like the hospital, provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” he said.

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, Taiwan’s coast guard said in October.

The island supports around 180 people, about 150 of them coast guard personnel who have had oversight of the 46-hectare (114-acre) island since 2000.

Separately, Taiwan carried out military drills Wednesday, with naval chiefs assuring residents the island is safe, as concerns grow that tensions will escalate with China after recent presidential elections. The drills were the first since Tsai swept to victory.

On Wednesday, the Taiwanese navy displayed eight warships and fired flares from a missile corvette during an exercise in waters off Tsoying in southern Taiwan, home to the island’s naval headquarters.

It was the second and final day of the drills which saw a group of elite frogmen land on a beach in motorboats Tuesday on the island of Kinmen — a Taiwan-controlled outpost near China’s southeastern city of Xiamen.

A fleet of F-16 fighter jets were also scrambled in another exercise Tuesday at the southern Chiayi air base.

“With the Lunar New Year approaching, our citizens can feel at ease we are able to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait,” Vice Admiral Tsai Hung-tu, head of the navy’s political warfare office, said.

Military exercises are routinely carried out by Taiwan before the Lunar New Year holidays which fall in February this year.