Thu, Jan 05, 2006 - Page 3 News List

Spratly airport Chen's `gift,' KMT says

CURRYING FAVOR Defense officials yesterday denied claims by the KMT that the plan to build an airstrip on Taiping Island was actually a `parting gift' to the president

By Ko Shu-ling  /  STAFF REPORTER

Opposition legislators yesterday accused the military of trying to create a "parting gift" for the president by building an airstrip on an island in the disputed Spratly chain.

The Ministry of National Defense (MND) yesterday dismissed accusations lodged by a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator that the ministry is trying to circumvent legislative supervision to build an airport on Taiping Island (太平島), also known as Itu Aba, and that the construction was aimed at winning the president's favor.

The island is one of the biggest in of the disputed chain, and Vietnam has lodged an official protest with Taiwan over the airport plan. The coast guard has 115 officers stationed on the island -- the only one in the chain that is held by Taiwan.

Cha Chen-tung (查振東), a director of the ministry's Armaments Bureau, said yesterday that the airport is not intended for military use, but for humanitarian purposes such as emergency rescue efforts by the Coast Guard Administration for sick or injured sailors or fishermen.

"I'd like to point out that we are not building the airport because of President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁)," Cha said.

"It is for humanitarian, rescue and medical purposes. It is also a faster transportation means for soldiers on leave who want to return to Taiwan proper, because it takes eight days' travel by sea between Taiwan and Taiping Island," Cha said in the legislature yesterday morning in response to a question from KMT Legislator Lin Yi-shih (林益世).

Lin said that the airport is being built as a farewell gift to the president, whose second term is due to end in 2008. He also questioned how the defense ministry has managed to raise the funds to build the airport so quickly.

"I'm very curious to know why the ministry did not want to build the airport six years ago when A-bian (阿扁) was elected to the presidency. Why do they want to build it now and get the money in such a short period of time?" he asked.

"Is it possible that Premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) or Minister of National Defense Lee Jye (李傑) wants to please the president in a desperate effort to keep their jobs?" Lin asked.

He said that the Armaments Bureau received an instruction in August last year to build the airport. On Sept. 16, Chen announced that he would take the media to visit Taiping Island before his term comes to an end.

The defense ministry then requested NT$360 million (US$11.1 million) from the Executive Yuan's emergency fund in November, and the request was granted in 10 days.

The NT$710 million project is estimated to be completed by the end of the year. The airport will only be capable of handling C-130 Hercules aircraft -- which are designed to perform short take-offs and landings -- and not other military aircraft, such as fighters or maritime patrol aircraft. The island is out of helicopter range from Taiwan.

In addition to threatening to slash the budget earmarked for the project, Lin said that those who approve the project and budget must be punished.

Lin also implied that the defense ministry is trying to elude the supervision of the legislature by requesting money from the Executive Yuan's emergency fund, rather than earmarking it in the ministry's regular budget.

"If the ministry can get this kind of money to build the airport, it is a logical assumption that they can apply the same technique for the long-stalled arms procurement plan," Lin said.

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