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《TAIPEI TIMES》 Itu Aba trip to challenge Lai: experts


Itu Aba Island is pictured in an undated photograph. 
Photo: Reuters

Itu Aba Island is pictured in an undated photograph.  Photo: Reuters

2024/05/17 03:00

SOUTH CHINA SEA: The KMT wants to present incoming president William Lai with a conundrum of whether to remain silent or assert the nation’s territorial claims, experts said

/ Staff writer, with CNA

A trip by about 20 opposition lawmakers to Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島) today, just two days before president-elect William Lai’s (賴清德) inauguration, is aimed at challenging Lai to reiterate Taiwan’s territorial claims and sovereignty, analysts said, while others accused the lawmakers of aiding Beijing’s claims over the disputed territory.

Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Ma Wen-chun (馬文君), who cochairs the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, is leading the group of KMT lawmakers and a handful of lawmakers from the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

Ma told reporters on May 5 that the purpose of the visit was to express support for coast guard personnel there, inspect a newly constructed pier and reinforce the nation’s sovereignty over the island.

The Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island is also claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam. It is 1,600km southwest of Kaohsiung among the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) in the resource-rich and strategically important South China Sea.

Taiwan Democracy Watch director Raymond Sung (宋承恩) said yesterday that tensions between China and the Philippines have been increasing in the South China Sea, coming after a tribunal appointed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in 2016 that the Chinese government’s so-called nine-dash line had no legal basis under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“So Beijing needs to use Taiping Island to assert its territorial claim over the surrounding waters. Former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) visited the island in 2016 to collaborate with China’s political rhetoric and territorial claims. The international community was surprised at the time to see Taiwan standing with China on South China Sea issues,” he said.

KMT and TPP lawmakers must face four questions for making the visit, Sung said.

“What are the benefits for Taiwan? How would the international community perceive Taiwan and China’s relations regarding the claim to the island? How would they prevent China from politically manipulating this matter? Finally, what would be the impact on Taiwan’s national interests?” he asked.

If these questions are not answered, then the lawmakers are using taxpayer money to promote China’s cause while risking the dangers of siding with Beijing in confrontation against other countries, Sung said.

National Sun Yat-sen University’s Institute of Political Science emeritus professor Dachi Liao (廖達琪) said the lawmakers are “daring” Lai to reiterate Taiwan’s territorial claims.

With Lai expected to adopt a “non-provocative” stance on the issue in his inauguration speech, the lawmakers are looking to test whether he would match his strong support for Taiwan as an independent sovereign country with words, she said.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) vigorously defended Taiwan’s territorial claims under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who visited Taiping Island in 2008, she said.

However, the ruling party has in recent years been relatively “muted” over Taiwan’s territorial claims in the contested waters, Liao said.

The KMT has been a staunch defender of those claims, which are within the “existing national boundaries” enshrined in the Constitution, she said.

The KMT therefore wants to present Lai with the conundrum of whether to remain silent or reassert the country’s territorial claims at the expense of upsetting the US, which has sought to choke off China’s military presence in the sea, she said.

Reasserting this claim might not be bad for Taiwan, because if the government shies away from the issue every time it is brought up, it suggests Taiwan cannot assert its sovereignty and can only capitulate to the stances of the US or China on the issue, Liao said.

The relatively large size of the delegation means that the trip has likely been discussed with China and the US, who might not necessarily agree with the tour, but are likely to acquiesce, she said.

However, the opposition parties might be trying to create an image that they are tougher and more vocal in their support of Taiwan’s sovereignty than the DPP, she said.

Brian Hioe, an editor at New Bloom Magazine, agreed that the trip is aimed at pressuring the DPP to reinforce the nation’s territorial claims.

It seeks to “frame the DPP as unwilling to defend the institutions of the ROC [Republic of China] in a way that it should” and in part to appeal to the KMT’s traditional support base by reiterating the country’s claim over the island, Hioe said.

In addition, the visit could undercut the strengthening ties between Taiwan and the Philippines, potentially spelling trouble for Lai, Hioe said.

J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based security analyst, said that while there was nothing “intrinsically untoward” with visits to Taiping Island, it was crucial, given the tensions in the region, that such visits be conducted in ways that avoid causing tensions with other claimants.

Also, participants in such visits should emphasize that their actions in no way suggest that Taiwan and China are collaborating in their respective claims, Cole said.

“I have no doubt that the legislators who take part in this visit are doing so with the full awareness of the likelihood that Beijing will seek to exploit it for its own propagandistic purposes,” Cole said.

The KMT in March pressured departing President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who has not visited the island since taking office in May 2016, to visit to reinforce Taiwan’s claim.

The National Security Bureau at that time advised against a visit, citing geopolitical factors in the region and safety concerns related to the presidential aircraft.

Additional reporting by Chen Cheng-yu and Jason Pan

新聞來源:TAIPEI TIMES

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