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Ma defends visit to Taiping Island, calling it urgent, necessary

Ma defends visit to Taiping Island, calling it urgent, necessary

Taipei, Feb. 1 (CNA) President Ma Ying-jeou on Monday responded to critics of his recent trip to Taiping Island, the largest of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, saying it was his duty to defend the country's territory.

"I'd rather put up with a few (people) condemning me for visiting the island at an inappropriate time than be criticized by the public for neglecting my duty, abdicating my rights and bringing shame to the country," he said. The president spoke of the necessity, legitimacy and urgency of the Jan. 28 visit while presiding over the swearing-in ceremony of the new premier and his Cabinet at the Presidential Office Monday.

Ma said the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague held a hearing on a case brought by the Philippines against China in November 2015 during which a lawyer for the Philippines argued that Taiping was not an island, but a rock that cannot support human habitation.

If the court accepts such a fallacy when it makes its ruling, it would damage Taiwan's legal rights, Ma said.

The argument was part of a broader attempt by Manila to have many of the land features occupied by China in the South China Sea declared rocks or reefs rather than islands to limit China's encroachment into Philippine economic waters.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, "islands" are entitled to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf, while a "rock" can only generate 12-nautical-mile territorial waters. As a rock, Taiping would have territorial waters covering an area of about 450 square nautical miles, but as an island, its exclusive economic zone would cover 125,000 square nautical miles, Ma said.

The president said his visit aimed to bring attention in the international community and the court in the Hague to Taiwan's stance that Taiping is an island, not a rock.

In the five days after the visit, there were 179 international media reports and comments, and no additional tensions in the South China Sea arose because of the visit, the president said.

The United States opposed Ma's trip, fearing that it could raise tensions in the region, and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers, who were in opposition to Ma's government before winning control of the Legislature in Jan. 16 elections, criticized the visit.

DPP Legislator Yao Wen-chih said Ma said he would respect the results of the Jan. 16 presidential and legislative elections, won by the DPP, but he still made a hasty visit to Taiping Island anyway.

"Of course, we believe Taiping is our land, and we are effectively exercising our right to govern it. Because there are no doubts about that, then why bother make a high-profile trip before stepping down," Yao said in a Facebook post.

He added that he would advise Ma to avoid creating trouble and hand over responsibility for national affairs to the president-elect before his term ends on May 20.

Foreign Minister David Lin said Monday that the timing of President Ma's visit was actually good and that communications with the United States have gone well.

The United States government initially said it was disappointed by the visit, calling the action "unhelpful" to resolving disputes in the region.

But it later expressed appreciation to the roadmap President Ma has devised for implementing his South China Sea peace initiative, Lin said.

Taiping, less than 0.5 square kilometers in area and 1,600 kilometers from Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan, is currently manned by Taiwan Coast Guard personnel. (By Claudia Liu, Tang Pei-chun and Lilian Wu)

Updated : 2021-06-13 13:59 GMT+08:00