Taipei presses South China Sea territorial claims

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou made a provocative visit Jan. 28 to Taiping Island in the South China Sea—the largest natural island in the dipsuted Spratly chain. Taiwan has controlled Taiping Island (also known as Itu Aba) since 1946, but it is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam—and, significantly, China. The island is inhabited by only 200—all Taiwanese military personnel. In his visit, Ma boasted infrastructure developments, including a new hospital and a lighthouse—but his comments made clear this was aimed at establishing what the diplomats call "facts on the ground." The island already hosts fortifications, military barracks, a hospital, radar and satellite facilities. "All this evidence fully demonstrates that Taiping Island is able to sustain human habitation and an economic life of its own," Ma said in a press release. "Taiping Island is categorically not a rock, but an island."  He also officially unveiled a monument during his visit, with an inscription reaing: "Peace in the South Seas, Eternally Secure the National Borders."

The visit comes just a week and a half after Ma's Kuomintang (KMT) was defeated by the center-left Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in presidential elections. The DPP's president-elect Tsai Ing-wen is to take office in May, and Ma's actions seemed at aimed at pressing her to clarify her stance on Taiwan's territorial ambitions—and on the Taipei government's absurd claim to be the rightful ruler of all China. The DPP has actually been wavering in its erstwhile pro-independence position. In her victory speech, Tsai vowed to preserve the status quo in relations with China—which basically means her position is to have no position.

Taiwan's official Central News Agency reported that in response to Ma's Taiping Island visit, Tsai "said…that she has consistently insisted on the Republic of China's (Taiwan's) sovereignty over Taiping Island, and she asked all parties involved in the dispute to maintain peace and stability in the region." (Parenthesis in original.) The verbatim quote does not appear to have been reported, at least not in English. The use of a paraphrase with "Taiwan" in parenthesis leaves it (no doubt intentionally) ambiguous whether Tsai referred to her country as "Taiwan" or the "Republic of China." Use of the second term would be an implicit embrace of the KMT's "one China" position.

Ironically, the "one China" doctrine, which once bitterly divided KMT-ruled Taiwan from the Beijing regime, has now become a point of unity between the former rival governments. Economic integration with China under the KMT has sparked waves of protest over the past two years.

Ma has emphasized that despite the DPP's victory he intends to remain an active president rather than merely the leader of a "caretaker" government. Let's hope that he does not (whether intentionally or unwittingly) spark an international crisis in his remaining time that will undermine Tsai before she has even taken office. (New BloomCNA, Jan. 29; AP, CNA, Taiwan Today, Jan. 28; Taipei Times, Jan. 22; BBC News, Jan. 17)

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