RP protests Taiwan leader Spratly trip
Rosalinda L. Orosa (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2008 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines deplored yesterday the trip made by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian on Ligao Island (Taiping) in the Kalayaan Island Group in the South China Sea, saying it was “irresponsible political posturing” that could affect peace in the area.

“It is lamentable that Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian pushed through with his plan to land on Ligao Island,” said Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo in a statement.

Manila expressed serious concern over this reported development that “works against the joint efforts by claimant countries in the South China Sea to achieve peace and stability in the region in accordance with the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC).”

The Philippines urged all parties concerned to exercise prudence and self-restraint and use diplomacy as tool to settle disputes in keeping with the spirit of the DoC.

“It is unfortunate that Taiwan is resorting to what may be considered as irresponsible political posturing that could be of no possible advantage to the peace-loving Taiwanese people,” Romulo said.

Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said they have not received reports of the visit, but added it might have some implications on the One-China Policy.

Chen, the first-ever Taiwan president to visit the disputed island, left at around 5 a.m. (2100 GMT Friday) on his presidential jet to a base south of Taiwan where he took an air force C-30 transport plane to Taiping Island, the biggest island in the Spratlys.

Taiwan’s United Evening News quoted unnamed sources as saying that several naval vessels escorted the Taiwanese leader’s plane to ensure its security.

The trip was aimed at drumming up support for Frank Hsieh, the ruling independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate in the election, but was seen by many as a move that will likely spark tensions in the region.

Taiwan, China’s renegade province, is aware that the move would invite protests from neighboring countries – including China – which also lay claim to the islands.

Taiwan’s defense ministry began building a 1,150-meter-long runway in the fortified Taiping islet in mid-2006, despite protest from Vietnam, and the project is nearly complete.

Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, China, Malaysia and the Philippines claim all or part of the potentially oil-rich Spratlys.

China is watching closely

Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Manila said China’s position on the contentious Island group will remain unchanged despite the latest development.

“The Chinese position on the South China Sea has not changed. It is consistent. It has never changed and we will work closely with the Philippine side and other (claimant) countries to reserve peace and stability in the region,” said Peng Xiu Bin, Chinese embassy spokesman.

In November, China expressed interest to begin the second phase of the Joint Exploration of the South China Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam.

Beijing’s desire to proceed with the second phase of the project was also confirmed by Malacañang.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the proposed joint development in the South China Sea was discussed by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during the bilateral talks with President Arroyo at the sidelines of the 13th Asean Summit last November in Singapore.

The Chinese Premier expressed desire to continue the next level and this is the actual joint exploration.

The two leaders discussed the further joint exploration of the resources-rich South China Sea on a “developmental level.”

Following the completion of the first phase or “exploration phase” of the South China Sea, the development level is ready to begin.

The Philippines, China and Vietnam are engaged in exploratory activities in the South China Sea.

Wen invited President Arroyo to visit China next year.

Romulo said talks between him and China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on the President’s visit will begin.

Political gambit

Chen’s landmark visit to the disputed island to assert a territorial claim was seen by many political experts as a card that the ruling party was using to try and woo voters ahead of the presidential elections on March 22.

During the election, a referendum will also be held to ask voters whether Taiwan should join the United Nations under the name “Taiwan.”

Chen, dogged by criticism that he accomplished too little as his eight-year term winds down, visited a recently completed airstrip for maritime rescue work and inaugurated a runway, military sources said.

The trip was also an apparent attempt by Chen to show his political strength in the waning days of his second and final four-year term, which ends in three months.

Analysts said Chen was making the visit for several reasons.

“He wants to tell the Taiwan people that he’s still in control. It is also a strong signal to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty ahead of the UN referendum,” said Andrew Yang, a political analyst at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.

The 1,150-meter airstrip completed in late January will supplement Taiwan coast guard and military facilities on Taiping, which is the biggest in the Spratly chain at 489,500 square meters and 1,000 kms south of Taiwan.

“He’s going to show he’s the president, for face, that’s the most obvious,” said Su Chi, a defense specialist with the Nationalist Party (KMT). “Whether this will lead to more conflict isn’t certain.”

Taiwan began building a runway in Taiping two years ago, saying the project was to facilitate coastal patrols, fishing and emergency medical needs and insisted that it was not a military facility.

No other claimant has built any structures on Taiping.

Hundreds of Taiwanese marines were stationed on the Taiping Island from 1952 to 1990 when they were withdrawn, ostensibly because of the difficulty of transporting supplies there.

Last year, the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung established a green turtle reserve on Taiping in a bid to stop hunting.

China and Vietnam, which have permanent structures elsewhere in the Spratlys, clashed over the island group in 1988 and 1992. Other countries have also engaged in low-level skirmishes over their own claims.

Tensions over the disputed island group have flared up recently, and China and Vietnam agreed last month to handle their disputes through negotiations and pledged to safeguard peace in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has protested to Taiwan twice in the last two months as the airstrip construction progressed. – With James Mananghaya, AP

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