President Ma set to visit Taiping Island (update)

01/27/2016 01:42 PM
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Taipei, Jan. 27 (CNA) President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) will visit Taiping Island in the South China Sea on Thursday, weather permitting, to greet soldiers stationed there ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, Presidential Office spokesman Charles Chen (陳以信) said Wednesday.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has officially notified Taiwan's diplomatic allies of the plan, while Presidential Office Secretary-General Tseng Yung-chuan (曾永權) contacted the Democratic Progressive Party on Ma's behalf to invite President-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to send an envoy on the trip.

DPP spokesman Yang Chia-liang (楊家俍) said the party had responded to Tseng and told him that the DPP has no plans to send a representative to take part in the visit.

Taiping Island, which lies 1,600 kilometers south of Taiwan, is the largest natural island controlled by Taiwan in the disputed South China Sea. Ma, whose second and final term as president ends on May 20, has never been there during his nearly eight years as president.

Describing the island as an inherent part of the territory of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Chen said the president has never ruled out a visit to the island and noted that former President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) went to the island during his time in office.

The president will be accompanied by some 20 government officials, scholars and experts, Chen said, but no arrangements will be made for media outlets to join the trip.

Ma will hold a press conference after returning from the visit, Chen said.

The planned visit comes as the government moves to reinforce Taiwan's sovereignty claim over the island in the wake of China's buildup in the region and the Philippines' case against Beijing at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.

Beijing claims the waters and land in the South China Sea based on a "nine-dotted line" and reinforces those claims by saying the islands, reefs and atolls it considers its own have 200-nautical-mile (370 km) exclusive economic zones.

The Philippines is disputing that, arguing that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) the atolls and reefs claimed by Beijing are nothing more than "rocks" or "sunken reefs" that can generate 12 nautical miles of territorial waters at best.

They are not naturally formed "islands" capable of sustaining human habitation or economic life, which are entitled to exclusive economic zones under UNCLOS, the Philippines has argued.

The case does not directly involve Taiwan, but it may have indirect implications because Taiwan also claims all of the South China Sea using a similar "dotted line" to China's and has a presence on Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba.

Ma has insisted on Taiping's status as an "island" under the UN convention's guidelines, writing in a Facebook post in December that Taiping Island is self-sustaining, with fresh water and vegetable and poultry farms.

An expert panel formed by the Council of Agriculture that toured the island on Jan. 22 and 23 to check on its natural and agricultural environment also confirmed that Taiping qualifies as an island.

(By Claudia Liu, Sophia Yeh and Evelyn Kao)


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