Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee (李大維) yesterday said that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has not ruled out visiting Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) in the South China Sea, which has been categorized by an international tribunal ruling as a “rock.”
Lee made the remarks at a meeting of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee in Taipei, which reviewed the potential effects of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on Tuesday over territorial disputes between the Philippines and China.
Due to similarities between Taiwan’s territorial claims and those of China in the South China Sea, Itu Aba was brought up in testimony at the hearings, despite Taiwan not being party to the case.
Photo: Chien Jung-fong, Taipei Times
“Currently, the government has no such arrangements, but we do not rule out the possibility in the future,” Lee said when asked by Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Chen Ting-fei (陳亭妃) to comment on calls for Tsai to make a trip to Itu Aba to safeguard the nation’s claims over the feature and demonstrate its status as an “island.”
Lawmakers passed an impromptu motion proposed by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) urging Tsai to visit Itu Aba at an opportune time to deliver a speech reiterating the nation’s claims over it.
Lee said after a preliminary reading of the 479-page ruling, which lists the sustainability of a stable community of people as a prerequisite for being classified as an island, the government is mulling the option of arranging for people to establish long-term residency on Itu Aba to fulfill that requirement.
Having administered Itu Aba for more than six decades, the government is disappointed at and puzzled by the ruling, Lee said, inviting the tribunal’s five judges to visit Itu Aba to see it for themselves.
The meeting came one day after Taiwan refused to accept the tribunal’s conclusion that all of the high-tide features in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), including Itu Aba, are legally “rocks” that do not generate an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.
Itu Aba, which has been controlled by Taiwan since 1956, is the largest naturally occurring island of the Spratly group. It is home to 106 indigenous plant species, several animal species, a variety of sources of food and a 10-bed hospital with two physicians, a dentist and three nurses, the ministry said.
On Jan. 28, then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) visited Itu Aba in an effort to reject the Philippines’ categorization of it as a “rock” and provide evidence to the international community that it could sustain human habitation and an economic life of its own.
Asked whether Washington’s recognition of the ruling as being legally binding could affect diplomatic ties, Lee said the US has been made aware of the nation’s stance on the South China Sea disputes and understands why the government had to issue a strongly worded statement dismissing the ruling.
“Taipei and Washington talked at length about the issue last night [Tuesday] ... but I am not able to reveal details of our conversation,” Lee told lawmakers.
Lee shrugged off speculation that Taiwan and China could work together to defend their claims in the South China Sea, saying that while both sides’ bases for their claims share similarities, they are mostly different.
The government would stand firm on its claims, Lee said, adding that it would continue to adhere to the stance illustrated by the “Location Map of the South China Sea Islands” drawn up by the Republic of China government in 1947.
Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang (黃重諺) dismissed a report published by the Chinese-language United Evening News that quoted an anonymous source as saying the office has arranged for Tsai to make a trip to Itu Aba.
“Information in this report is inaccurate and was not verified before publication,” Huang said. “With regard to whether the president will visit Itu Aba, there is no such arrangement at the moment, but we do not rule out the possibility in the future.”
Tsai did not respond when asked by reporters to confirm the report on the sidelines of a meeting of the DPP’s Central Standing Committee yesterday afternoon.
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