Ma's visit to isle in South China Sea 'unhelpful'

Planned visit today does not contribute to peaceful resolution of dispute, says US

TAIPEI • A planned trip by Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou to the Taiwanese-held island of Itu Aba in the South China Sea is "extremely unhelpful" and will not do anything to resolve disputes over the waterway, a US official said yesterday.

The comment from the United States was followed by Vietnam's opposition to the trip.

"If he goes, it will raise tensions in the area," said Mr Tran Duy Hai, representative of the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, the de facto embassy for Hanoi in the absence of official diplomatic ties.

Mr Ma's office said the President, who steps down in May, will fly to Itu Aba today to offer Chinese New Year wishes to its residents, mainly Taiwanese coast guard personnel and environmental scholars. But his one-day visit to Itu Aba, known as Taiping in Taiwan, comes amid growing global concern over rising tensions in the waterway and quickly drew the ire of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto US embassy in Taipei.

"We are disappointed that President Ma Ying-jeou plans to travel to Taiping island," said AIT spokesman Sonia Urbom.

"Such an action is extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea."

The US wants Taiwan and all claimants to lower tensions, rather than taking actions that could raise them, she added.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to the Chinese capital yesterday, said Washington and Beijing needed to find a way to ease tensions in the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year.

Both Taiwan and China claim most of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims.

Itu Aba lies in the Spratly archipelago, where China's rapid construction of seven islands has drawn alarm across parts of Asia and been heavily criticised by the US.

Taiwan has just finished a US$100 million port upgrade as well as built a new lighthouse on Itu Aba, which has its own airstrip, a hospital and fresh water.

Mr Ma's visit follows elections won by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Mr Ma's office said it had asked DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen to send a representative, but the party said it had no plans to do so.

Dr Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore's Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said he expected the Philippines and Vietnam to lodge a strong protest.

"But I do think it is unlikely they would stage a similar visit involving a senior political figure going to one of their own occupied islands ... that would risk inflaming relations with China and neither wants to go that far," Dr Storey said.

Asked to comment on Mr Ma's planned visit, the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated that China and Taiwan had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the waterway.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Ma's visit to isle in South China Sea 'unhelpful''. Print Edition | Subscribe