Sun, Feb 03, 2008 - Page 1 News List

President visits disputed islands

SEA POWER The navy dispatched almost half its main warship strength plus a couple of submarines to provide protection for Chen Shui-bian on his trip to the Spratly Islands

By Shih Hsiu-chuan, Hsu Shao-hsuan and Jimmy Chuang  /  STAFF REPORTERS, WITH AGENCIES

President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) yesterday made a landmark visit to the Spratly Islands (南沙群島) to visit Taiwan's military forces stationed there.

As the first president from Taiwan to ever set a foot on Taiping Island (太平島) -- the biggest in the Spratly chain and 1,000km south of Taiwan -- Chen's low-profile visit yesterday was also largely seen as a move to assert a sovereignty claim.

The Spratly Islands, a string of rocky outcrops in the South China Sea possibly holding large oil and gas deposits, are also claimed by China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

According to the Central News Agency, Chen boarded a C-130 transport plane before dawn at an air force base in Pingtung County, accompanied by Minister of National Defense Lee Tien-yu (李天羽), Minister of the Interior Lee Yi-yang (李逸洋) and Coast Guard Administration Minister Wang Jinn-wang (王進旺).

While the Ministry of Defense declined to give further details, the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times' sister newspaper) learned from sources that the navy, in order to provide sufficient protection for Chen, had sent two fleets with Kidd-class destroyers as flagships into the South China Sea, with almost half of the navy's main warships dispatched to the area. Two submarines also joined the mission.

A navy deployment this large has been rare in recent years.

Because the range of the air force's fighter aircraft is limited, the farthest point they can protect is the area around the Pratas Islands (東沙島). This is about 1200km away from Taiping Island, constituting too long a battle line.

The navy therefore formed two fleets of warships, using the radar of the Kidd-class destroyer, that has a range of more than 400km, to gather intelligence on their surroundings, while standard missiles have a range of 150 km. Combined with intelligence provided by allied countries, they formed an air corridor for the president's travel, sources said.

A statement released by the Presidential Office last night said the president, in addition to visiting Taiwanese forces stationed on Taiping also inspected an airstrip that was recently completed for maritime rescue work.

The 1,150m airstrip completed late last month will supplement Taiwan coastguard and military facilities on Taiping.

Vietnam has protested to Taiwan twice in the last two months as airstrip construction progressed. The Agence-France Presse said that Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said in a statement that it was "lamentable" that Chen had gone ahead with his plan to land on the island.

In his speech at the opening ceremony for the airstrip, Chen proposed a "Spratly Initiative," calling for countries in the South China Sea area to set aside sovereignty disputes and cooperate with each other to protect the Spratly's environment and resources.

Being one of the countries that claim sovereignty in the area, Chen said Taiwan would like to appeal for a peaceful solution to disputes in accordance with UN Charter and The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

"The sovereignty dispute should be replaced with environmental protection and depletion of resources should be replaced with sustainable ecology," he said, adding that Taiwan would like to accept the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea on the basis of equality among sovereign states and looks forward to participating in the establishment of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in the future.

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