A group of foreign journalists yesterday visited Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) in the South China Sea, marking the first time foreign reporters have set foot on the disputed island at the invitation of the government.
Among the invited foreign reporters were those from CNN, satellite TV network al-Jazeera, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Associated Press, L’Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Bloomberg, Kyodo news service and the Yomiuri Shimbun.
Staff from 11 local media outlets also joined the tour, including the state-owned Central News Agency, the Chinese-language newspaper Apple Daily, Next TV and Radio Taiwan International.
The journalists were accompanied by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruce Linghu (令狐榮達), Presidential Office spokesman Charles Chen (陳以信) and a number of Taiwanese experts and academics.
According to the trip’s itinerary, the reporters boarded a chartered plane flying to Pingtung County from the Songshan Air Force Base in Taipei at 6:10am before transferring to a C-130 transport aircraft bound for Itu Aba Island.
They landed on Itu Aba at about 11am and spent three hours on the island, the largest in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), which has been administered by Taiwan since 1956 and is also claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The trip took place about two months after President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) visited Itu Aba on Jan. 28, where he reiterated that it is an “island” rather than a “rock” and that the Republic of China (ROC) holds sovereignty over the land mass.
“On today’s trip, the ROC and foreign journalists drank water from a local well and had lunch prepared from crops and poultry raised on a local farm, evidence that the island’s natural environment can sustain human habitation and economic life of its own,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement issued after the journalists returned to Taipei at about 7pm.
They also toured the forest, local farm, post office, solar power facilities and the Guanyin Temple, which was built in the 1950s, the ministry said, adding that Linghu also discussed with the media the government’s use of peaceful means to protect its legal rights and interests with regard to Itu Aba.
At a post-trip international news conference, Ma said the reason the government arranged the trip to Itu Aba is because “seeing is believing.”
“We want to let international journalists witness firsthand that Itu Aba is an island, not a rock, to give the UN tribunal’s judges, the Philippine authorities and their attorneys a clearer understanding of the island mass’ situation,” Ma said.
The Philippines’ unsubstantiated remarks regarding Itu Aba at The Hague are due to the nation’s lack of knowledge about the island mass, Ma said, referring to Manila’s claims that Itu Abu cannot sustain human habitation and is therefore merely a “rock.”
Ma then extended a verbal invitation in his capacity as ROC president to Manila and the tribunal’s judges to visit Itu Aba, adding that all the efforts he has made are to prevent The Hague from making a verdict that runs counter to international law.
The Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law yesterday submitted an amicus curiae to the five judges of the arbitration tribunal to argue for Itu Aba’s status, Ma said.
The Philippines filed for arbitration against China on the status of Itu Aba at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in October last year. It said that Itu Aba is a rock as it cannot sustain life and thus cannot be considered a basis for China’s sovereignty claim over the South China Sea.
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