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ANALYSIS/Taiping Island trip aimed at pressing Lai on sovereignty: Analysts

05/15/2024 08:18 PM
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The Taiping Island in the South China Sea. CNA file photo
The Taiping Island in the South China Sea. CNA file photo

Taipei, May 15 (CNA) A trip by about 20 opposition lawmakers to Taiping Island just two days before President-elect Lai Ching-te's (賴清德) inauguration on May 20 is aimed at challenging Lai to reiterate Taiwan's territorial claims and sovereignty, analysts believe.

Kuomintang (KMT) Legislator Ma Wen-chun (馬文君), who co-chairs the Legislature's Foreign and National Defense Committee, will head the group, which will consist mainly 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 Taiwan's Coast Guard personnel stationed on Taiping Island, inspect a newly constructed pier, and reinforce the country's sovereignty over the island.

Dachi Liao (廖達琪), an emeritus professor with National Sun Yat-sen University's Institute of Political Science, said the opposition lawmakers are "daring" Lai to reiterate Taiwan's territorial claims with the visit to an island that symbolizes national sovereignty.

With Lai expected to adopt a "non-provocative" stance on the issue in his inauguration speech, the lawmakers are looking to test whether Lai, who leads the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will match his strong support of Taiwan as an independent sovereign country with words, Liao said.

The Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba, is also claimed by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

It is situated 1,600 kilometers southwest of Kaohsiung among the Spratly Islands in the resource-rich and strategically important South China Sea.

Liao said the DPP vigorously defended Taiwan's territorial claims under former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), who paid a visit to Taiping Island in 2008.

But amid an ongoing power struggle between the United States and China in the South China Sea, the ruling party has in recent years been relatively "muted" over Taiwan's territorial claims in the contested waters, Liao said.

The KMT, meanwhile, has been a staunch defender of those claims, which are within the "existing national boundaries" enshrined in the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan's official name) Constitution, Liao 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 U.S., which has sought to choke off China's military presence in the sea, Liao said.

Former President Chen Shui-bian (second left) gives a thumb up when he arrived on the Taiping Island on Feb. 2, 2008. File photo courtesy of Military News Agency
Former President Chen Shui-bian (second left) gives a thumb up when he arrived on the Taiping Island on Feb. 2, 2008. File photo courtesy of Military News Agency

Reasserting the claims might not be bad for Taiwan, Liao argued, 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 U.S. and China on the issue.

According to Liao, the relatively large size of the delegation to visit Taiping Island means that the trip has likely been discussed with China and the U.S., which may not necessarily agree with the tour but are likely to acquiesce.

The opposition parties may be trying to create an image, however, that they are tougher and more vocal in their support of Taiwan's sovereignty than the DPP, Liao said.

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

It seeks to "frame the DPP as unwilling to defend the institutions of the ROC 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 Taiping Island, Hioe told CNA.

In addition, Hioe said, the visit could also undercut the strengthening ties between Taiwan and the Philippines, a claimant of the island, potentially spelling trouble for Lai, whom Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. congratulated for winning the Jan. 13 presidential election.

J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based security analyst, said that while there was nothing "intrinsically untoward" with visits to Taiwan-controlled 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, such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

Also, participants of such visits should make sure to emphasize that their actions in no way suggest that Taiwan and China are collaborating in their respective claims to the contested areas, Cole told CNA.

"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 pay a visit to reinforce Taiwan's claim over it.

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

(By Sean Lin)

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KMT lawmakers call for President Tsai Ing-wen to visit the Taiping Island before she leaves office, in Taipei on March 19, 2024. Photo: CNA
KMT lawmakers call for President Tsai Ing-wen to visit the Taiping Island before she leaves office, in Taipei on March 19, 2024. Photo: CNA
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