President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) sought to underscore the nation’s sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) with his grand-scale trip to Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼) on Friday, but the mixed reactions the trip elicited suggest the symbolic visit has not been persuasive in showcasing his administration’s determination to defend the nation’s ownership of the controversial island cluster.
An activist in the Diaoyutais movement during college, Ma on Friday stepped up his campaign to assert the nation’s sovereignty over the islands by laying out the details of his “East China Sea peace initiative” during the visit, calling for a trilateral dialogue between Taiwan, China and Japan to resolve sovereignty disputes over the island chain, which Taiwan considers to be under the jurisdiction of Yilan County in the northeast of the country.
However, the two-hour whirlwind visit to the islet, which lies 56km off Keelung and 141km west of the Diaoyutais, seemed to damage his latest proposal calling for a peaceful, joint resolution to territorial disputes over the Diaoyutais, with many questioning why he failed to give a speech on the Diaoyutais instead.
Friday’s visit appeared more like a show designed to showcase the government’s defense forces, with the Ministry of National Defense dispatching eight fighter jets and six vessels to safeguard Ma’s trip.
Upon his arrival by helicopter, two Mirage 2000 fighter jets flew by to pay tribute to the president and later two F-16 jets also flew over as he made a speech about the disputed territory in front of the Pengjia Islet monument. The Coast Guard Administration (CGA) also dispatched a vessel to take several dozen reporters and academics to the islet, while two helicopters were used to transport accompanying government officials and legislators.
According to an anonymous coast guard official, the authorities conducted emergency rescue drills for over a month in the lead-up to the event.
Opposition parties have dismissed the Pengjia Islet trip as a political show put on to bolster Ma’s personal reputation. DPP Legislator Huang Wei-cher (黃偉哲) cited information from the military saying that fuel costs for the trip alone were in excess of NT$4 million.
“It’s more like a fireworks show with no substantial meaning. The Ma administration should focus its efforts on improving the nation’s economy,” he said.
Even Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators who accompanied Ma on the Pengjia Islet trip expressed their disappointment about not being able to visit the Diaoyutais to assert the nation’s sovereignty over the region.
“Although we land on Pengjia Islet today, ultimately I hope that one day we can visit the Diaoyutai Islands. I have proposed the idea to the president, but he said the government has no immediate plans to visit the island,” KMT Legislator Huang Chao-shun (黃昭順) said.
KMT Legislator Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) said on the way to Pengjia Islet that he wanted to ask the helicopter pilot to fly to the Diaoyutai Islands instead.
The latest poll released by the Chinese-language Apple Daily showed that more than 53 percent of Taiwanese people think the Pengjia Islet trip did little to assert the nation’s sovereignty over the Diaoyutais.
Ma, while slamming the Japanese government’s plan to nationalize the Diaoyutais as an “invasion” of Taiwan’s territory, did not provide an answer when asked whether he saw the Diaoyutai Islands from the helicopter.
“I have no plans to visit the Diaoyutais. We are seeking to resolve the disputes over sovereignty through negotiations with Japan and mainland China and a trilateral dialogue would be a great way to resolve the issue,” he said.
Lee Ming (李明), foreign affairs professor at National Chengchi University, said the trilateral dialogue was a good proposal that could help reduce the potential for serious conflict between China and Japan through negotiations.
However, he acknowledged that it would be difficult to bring China and Japan to negotiations and to start a rational conversation over the disputed isles’ sovereignty adding that the government should pay close attention to the reactions from both countries.
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