Just as I was about to give up all hope for Taiwan's maritime policy, I was delighted to hear that the Ministry of National Defense has announced that it will be building a landing strip on Ita Aba (Taiping Island 太平島), one of the Spratly Islands, and that this project will be completed in three months. With the 2005 Taiwan Ocean Year drawing to a close, finally there has been a proposal that will lend substance to that name.
The government's South China Sea policy is often criticized as passive and ineffective. Because of rapid developments in the South China Sea in recent years, Taiwan's role has been marginalized.
In mid-March, the national oil companies of the Philippines, Vietnam and China signed an accord to conduct research in the Spratly Islands for economic purposes. Last month, China signed a communique with Vietnam to state that the agreement was an important contribution to realizing the aims of ASEAN's Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, bringing about greater stability and harmony to the region.
China and Vietnam also agreed to provide active support for companies operating in the area to ensure that the agreement was adhered to, and that cooperation could achieve rapid results.
China followed this with a series of declarations signed with other nations stating that the South China Sea had become a "sea of peace, amity and cooperation." Taiwan, of course, was ostracized from all of this. For Taiwan, the South China Sea is not the sea of cooperation, but one of infractions of its territorial rights. It is not a sea of friendship, but a sea of animosity from which Taiwan is being driven. If Taiwan does not act to counter this, all rights to the area will be given away.
Now that construction of the landing strip has been confirmed, all agencies involved should actively cooperate and look more closely at ways of protecting the nation's territorial claims in the South China Sea. This will be necessary if we are to pave the way for effectively exploiting its resources, maintaining secure air links and maritime security and finding an opportunity to participate in regional dialogue.
We should also pay attention to the response of countries in the region, especially China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
In addition, Taiwan should strengthen its defense of Ita Aba and give considerable thought to whether the navy should again assume this duty, or whether a coast guard detachment should remain at its post.
The South China Sea Task Force (under the jurisdiction of the Executive Yuan) and the Coast Guard Administration should convene as soon as possible to discuss appropriate measures and outline policy.
I also want to suggest that after the completion of the runway on Ita Aba, either the president or vice president should fly to the island and make a policy statement regarding Taiwan and the role it will play in the South China Sea, Southeast Asia and the Taiwan Strait.
If circumstances are too sensitive for either of these officials to visit the island, the government should consider inviting the mayor of Kaohsiung or the mayor of Taipei to do so in their place.
In the same way that Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara took a boat to the southernmost point of Japanese territory before unveiling a plaque and going diving off Okino Torishima, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) could go swimming or jogging around the island of Ita Aba.
Song Yann-huei is a research fellow at the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Ian Bartholomew
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