Ma visit to disputed island stirs row
The Philippines and Vietnam have expressed opposition to a visit of outgoing Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou to Itu Aba in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), warning it could further fuel tension in the disputed waters.
Ma on Thursday flew to Itu Aba, called Taiping Island by China and Ligao Island by the Philippines, amid criticism from the United States and protests from the other claimants as tensions swirled in the region.
Taipei insists the island on the Spratlys is part of its territory, but the chain is also claimed in part or in whole by Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam.
In a speech to personnel stationed on Taiping, Ma said the islands were “an inherent part of the Republic of China,” using Taiwan’s official title.
“This is indisputable,” he added.
But the visit was criticized by the Philippines and Vietnam.
“We remind all parties concerned of our shared responsibility to refrain from actions that can increase tension in the South China Sea,” Charles Jose, spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), said.
Vietnam also protested on Thursday.
“We resolutely oppose President Ma’s action of going to Itu Aba,” Tran Duy Hai, representative of the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, told Agence France-Presse, using an alternative name for the island.
“The situation is already very tense. Each country shouldn’t take any unilateral action. His action doesn’t contribute to stability in the region.”
China, which also regards Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification, gave a measured response to Ma’s trip.
“The Nansha [Spratly] islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. The Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait all have the responsibility to safeguard the ancestral property of the Chinese nation,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.
Ma’s trip occured as several other claimants have been beefing up their military presence in the disputed region.
Beijing regards almost the whole of the South China Sea as its territory and other claimants have complained it has become increasingly aggressive in pressing its claim.
Ma, however, adopted a more conciliatory tone, calling for the setting aside of disputes and proposed joint exploration of natural resources that the area is believed to harbor.
“To resolve disputes in the South China Sea, the ROC [Republic of China or Taiwan] government will work to safeguard sovereignty, shelve disputes, pursue peace and reciprocity and promote joint development,” he said.
Washington, which has said it does not want to see an escalation of tensions in the region, said on Wednesday Ma’s trip was “extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.”
The Philippines and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic ties because of the “One-China Policy,” which prevents countries from recognizing the self-ruling democratic island as a state.
The DFA’s rare statement on Taiwan, however, highlights its concern on the visit that came amid rising tensions in the area.
Over the last few years, China, which claims the West Philippine Sea nearly in its entirety, has engaged in massive reclamation, transforming submerged reefs into man-made islands, triggering concerns also from Philippine allies, such as the US and Japan.
Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam also have claims to the waters, home to possible rich oil, gas and mineral deposits aside from being a major trading route.
The Philippines hopes the arbitration case it filed against China before a The Hague tribunal will invalidate China’s claim.
A final ruling is expected in the first half of this year.
Ma’s visit to Ligao Island prompted Malacañang to push for a binding maritime Code of Conduct.
Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. also on Thursday said the Code of Conduct should legally bind all the countries claiming reefs and islands in the West Philippine Sea.
“Kung anuman ang plano o aksyon ng iba, hindi natitinag ang posisyon ng pamahalaan hinggil sa kahalagahan ng pagkakaroon ng Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea [Regardless of the plans or actions of the other claimants, the Philippines’ stance on the signing of a Code of Conduct has not wavered],” Coloma told reporters.
The Palace official cited the importance of freedom of navigation and flight and respect to international law.