On Taiping Island in the South China Sea, a wharf expansion project is nearing completion. The KMT is urging President Tsai Ing-wen to attend the completion ceremony, to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty over Taiping Island. The island is a source of international contention, as it is administered by Taiwan but also claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam. A former National Security Council official says it is highly unlikely that Tsai will make the visit, as it would raise personal safety concerns.
Shortly before leaving office in 2008, then-President Chen Shui-bian flew to Taiping Island on a C-130 transport plane. He became the first sitting president to step foot on the island.
Chen Shui-bian (Feb. 2, 2008)
We believe that future discussions on the South China Sea should prioritize environmental protection over sovereignty disputes. We insist on using peaceful means to resolve territorial disputes.
Chen’s visit came just weeks before the 2008 presidential election, raising objections from then-KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou. Ma argued that, as a lame-duck government, the Chen administration should instead focus on maintaining social stability and national security. But eight years later, a similar scenario played out when Ma himself was a lame-duck president.
Days after Tsai Ing-wen won the 2016 presidential election, then-President Ma visited Taiping Island to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty, sparking backlash from the international community. The AIT released a strongly worded statement describing the visit as “extremely unhelpful” to resolving disputes in the South China Sea. The AIT said it was “disappointed” that Ma had traveled to the island.
Another eight years later, a ceremony will soon be held on Taiping Island to celebrate the completion of a wharf expansion project. In addition, Taiwan plans to station a 100-ton patrol vessel at the island long-term. Ma has expressed support for President Tsai to visit the island. Deputy Legislative Speaker Johnny Chiang has done the same on social media, saying that defending national sovereignty should transcend party politics.
Former NSC secretary-general
I think the likelihood of a visit is rather low. I’d say it’s a 90% chance she won’t go. The U.S. wouldn’t like Taiwan to stir up controversy in the South China Sea with Taiping Island, as tensions remain quite high in the South China Sea. But I think a bigger reason that she won’t go is due to personal safety considerations. If China were to dispatch planes to shadow her flight there, it wouldn’t look good.
Tsai has kept mum on whether she will visit the island. A DPP lawmaker says ulterior motives are behind the KMT’s outspoken support for Tsai to visit.
What they are actually trying to do is preempt a visit. The situation in the South China Sea now is very different from the situation back during the Chen and Ma administrations. It is far more complex. If Tsai Ing-wen were to travel to Taiping Island, she would just go and then announce the visit after the fact. The KMT going out of its way to bring up the matter is playing into what the CCP wants.
With tensions high in the South China Sea, asserting sovereignty over Taiping Island is a challenge requiring a measured approach.
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