Outgoing Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou visits remote and disputed islands to ‘assert Taipei’s sovereignty’

Taiwan’s outgoing president Ma Ying-jeou yesterday visited Pengjia, a small island near the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, in yet another show of his determination to uphold sovereignty over disputed territory before he steps down on May 20.

Since January, Ma has been busy with overseas activities, including a visit to a Taiwan-held island in the highly contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in late January to assert sovereignty, followed by a trip last month to Taiwan’s two Central American allies, Guatemala and Belize, to cement ties.

As long as he is president, it is his duty to assert Taiwan’s territorial claims

George Tsai Wei, Chinese Culture University

Critics have mocked Ma’s visits as a sign of his reluctance to let go even after he became a lame-duck president.

Some politicians in the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party have accused Ma of attempting to side with Beijing by visiting Taiwan-administered Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratlys, which are claimed in part or whole by Beijing, Taipei, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Taiwan president visits disputed Taiping island in South China Sea

But analysts said while Ma could be trying to build his legacy, which includes establishing warmer relations with Beijing since he become president in 2008, his act of assertion was largely due to his belief in upholding Taiwan’s sovereignty over disputed territories.

“As long as he is president, it is his duty to assert Taiwan’s territorial claims in either the Diaoyus or Taiping Island in the South China Sea,” said George Tsai Wei, a professor of political science at Chinese Culture University.

Analysts said by reiterating Taiwan’s sovereignty over the two places, Ma hoped to establish a precedent for his successors.

“The ‘assertion visits’ had nothing to do with siding with China as none of Ma’s comments made on either Pengjia Island or Taiping carried anything or words related to Beijing,” said Wang Kung-yi, a professor of international affairs at Tamkang University in Taipei.

Beijing – which has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province of China awaiting unification since the end the civil war in 1949 – has long called for Taipei to cooperate with it in upholding territorial claims in both places.

During his trip to Pengjia, a rocky outcrop 120km west of the Diaoyus, Ma reiterated Taiwan’s claim over both places.

He also unveiled a monument to maritime peace in a ceremony marking the 4th anniversary of his proposal for the East China Sea Peace Initiatives and 3rd anniversary of the signing of a fishery pact with Japan that signified his efforts to shelve disputes in favour of joint exploration for resources.

“I must do whatever I should do as long as I stay in the office,” he was quoted as saying by the Central News Agency when asked if this and earlier visits were an attempt to leave a legacy.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou warns Japan against buying Diaoyus

In response to a reporter’s question on the possibility of him visiting the uninhabited Japanese controlled Diaoyus, Ma said that he will continue to follow Diaoyu issues after he steps down, even though it was premature to think about such a visit.

I must do whatever I should do as long as I stay in the office

Outgoing Taiwan President Ma Ying Jeou

Meanwhile, Colin Willett, the US State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asian Affairs told reporters in Singapore yesterday that China should abide by an international ruling on its territorial claims in the South China Sea even if it did not like the decision, Bloomberg reported.

The Philippines has asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague to rule on its claims that the disputed Spratlys are uninhabitable rocks and thus don’t confer rights to exploit surrounding resources, claimed by China.

The hearings began last July and a decision is due this year.

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