News / Asia

    Taiwan President Visits Disputed South China Sea Island

    FILE - Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou speaks as he announces his South China Sea Peace Initiative during the 2015 ILA-ASIL Asia Pacific Research Forum in Taipei, Taiwan, May 26, 2015.
    FILE - Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou speaks as he announces his South China Sea Peace Initiative during the 2015 ILA-ASIL Asia Pacific Research Forum in Taipei, Taiwan, May 26, 2015.
    Ralph Jennings

    The president of Taiwan, a staunch but overlooked claimant in Asia’s biggest maritime territorial dispute, flew to a contested island Thursday to send a signal that has reached as far as Washington.

    President Ma Ying-jeou boarded a military aircraft before 9 a.m. for Itu Aba, a tropical atoll in the South China Sea also known as Taiping Island. He visited about 200 people stationed there as coast guard personnel, medical workers and scientific researchers before returning to Taipei by evening.

    Ma called for “peaceful” development of Itu Aba, citing infrastructure developments including a 10-bed hospital and a lighthouse.

    "All this evidence fully demonstrates that Taiping Island is able to sustain human habitation and an economic life of its own. Taiping Island is categorically not a rock, but an island," he said, adding it will be transformed into an island for peace and rescue operations, as well as an ecologically friendly and low-carbon island.

    Itu Aba, in the Spratly Islands
    Itu Aba, in the Spratly Islands

    “In other words, we have these services related to peace and humanitarian work,” Ma said at a news conference in Taipei upon his return from the island. “We can develop those on the island and extend them to fishermen or people from nearby places.”

    “President Ma emphasizes that Taiping Island is an inherent territory of the Republic of China,” his spokesman Charles Chen said Wednesday, using the constitutional name for Taiwan.

    Ma's visit to the islet 1,600 kilometers away from Taiwan follows an unusually stern statement this week from the foreign ministry calling the sea's four major tropical island archipelagos parts of the Republic of China under international laws.

    The Republic of China is Taiwan's legal name. The statement says Taiwan has “stood by” Itu Aba and other islets for 60 years.

    Regional dispute

    The president's visit may help spotlight Taiwan's position.

    Despite its claim to nearly the whole 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, Taiwan normally struggles to get attention for lack of diplomatic relations in Asia. China, the most powerful claimant in the maritime dispute, says Taiwan itself belongs to Beijing and forbids other countries from forming diplomatic ties.

    Taiwan has built Itu Aba, an atoll covering half a square kilometer in the Spratly archipelago, into a coast guard outpost with solar energy projects and medical staff to help storm-battered ships.

    Those developments on the ocean's largest natural islet are parts of Taiwan's effort to gain international attention. In a statement Thursday, the president called for “peaceful” use of Itu Aba.

    Analysts say other claimants around the South China Sea are more likely to protest Ma's visit than endorse development on the islet.

    FILE - This photo released by the Military Information Agency in Taiwan shows two Taiwanese warships docking near the shore of Taiping Island, the largest of the disputed Spratly Island chain, with the Taiping military base in the foreground.
    FILE - This photo released by the Military Information Agency in Taiwan shows two Taiwanese warships docking near the shore of Taiping Island, the largest of the disputed Spratly Island chain, with the Taiping military base in the foreground.

    Five other governments claim all or part of the sea that stretches from Taiwan southwest to Singapore. Ma's trip to the waters comes as China landfills other islets and the Philippines protests the basis for China's claims to a United Nations tribunal.

    Taiwan uses a nearly identical basis.

    US reaction

    On Wednesday the U.S. State Department called the Taiwan leader's trip unhelpful to easing disputes in the South China Sea.

    “Frankly, we’re disappointed," State deputy spokesperson Mark Toner said. "We view such an action as unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. We urge Taiwan and all claimants to lower tensions and deescalate tensions rather than taking actions that could possibly raise them.”

    Vietnam, another claimant that has landfilled some of the ocean's 500 islets, normally protests when Taiwan tries to shore up its claims.

    China may also sound off despite efforts under Ma's eight-year tenure to improve relations. Ma must step down in May due to term limits and hand power to the opposition party's president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen.

    The opposition party has chafed with China in the past and Tsai said last year that if elected she would pursue dialogue with all governments with stakes in the South China Sea. Beijing would protest that move to block those countries from strengthening ties with Taiwan.

    But China is unlikely to take action now at the risk of offending the United States, said Shane Lee, a political scientist at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. Washington wants all claimants to work harder on getting along.

    “[China] will be irritated at least, probably make some noise and so on,” Lee said. “I don't think they will take any actions, because the Americans are there, too.”

    "On the one hand, Taiwan ... [doesn't] want to give up the claims of China," said Jerome A. Cohen, a China legal scholar and professor at New York University, speaking at a discussion hosted by the Asia Society on Wednesday. On the other hand, he added, Taiwan lacks the formal diplomatic ties within the UN system to challenge competing claims such as the lawsuit the Philippines’ lodged against China at The Hague.

    Cohen instead urged Taiwan to aim to become the "Switzerland of Asia," opening Taiping to all international entities for conferences, negotiations, research and dialogue, and thereby asserting a new conciliatory in the disputed maritime region.

    Competing claims

    Brunei and Malaysia also claim parts of the sea. Competing claims have sparked occasional clashes between vessels since the 1970s. In 2014, Chinese and Vietnamese boats jousted after Beijing allowed an oil rig to be stationed off Vietnam's coast.

    The South China Sea is rich in fisheries as well as possible reserves of oil and natural gas below the seabed. Half the world's shipping traffic by tonnage also passes through the sea.

    The islets, many submerged in high tides, have no indigenous population.

    Political experts in Taiwan say President Ma considers the Itu Aba visit a key personal milestone.

    He has been criticized at home for forming ties too fast with Beijing and being too soft on foreign policy. The opposition's president-elect was invited on the trip but declined without giving a reason.

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: william li from: canada
    January 28, 2016 2:01 PM
    Good job President Ma! South china sea belongs to China, PRC or ROC, doesn't matter. South china sea is Chinese! lets work together and protect our forefathers legacy!

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmarki
    X
    John Owens
    June 26, 2016 2:04 PM
    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora