by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

TAIPING ISLAND, also known as Itu Aba, is back in the news as we approach the end of President Tsai Ing-wen’s second term.

In particular, prominent Tsai administration officials such as Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu have urged Tsai not to visit Taiping Island. Taiping Island is administered by Taiwan, as a result of which there are fortifications, military barracks, a hospital, radar and satellite facilities, and a temple on the island. However, the island is also claimed by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Wu and others have stated that visiting Taiping Island would be overly sensitive at present, given clashes between coast guard vessels from China and the Philippines. This occurs at a time of tensions with China for Taiwan, following the death of two Chinese fishermen intruding in the territorial waters of Kinmen after the fishermen refused a search by a Taiwanese coast guard vessel and tried to speed away, capsizing after colliding with a pursuing coast guard vessel.

Since the incident, China has begun conducting coast guard patrols and searching Taiwanese ships, using the deaths as pretext to escalate grey zone activity. At the same time, this has not prevented cooperation between the Chinese and Taiwanese coast guard in joint searches for individuals who fell off vessels, as occurred this month. Though the Chinese government has downplayed such cooperation, the Taiwanese government has emphasized that this occurs regularly.

The question of whether Tsai would visit Taiping Island is because her predecessors did shortly before the end of their term. To this extent, KMT politicians have sought to criticize the DPP for not doing enough to defend the territorial sovereignty of outlying islands of Taiwan, including islands in the South China Sea. As such, the issue of Taiping Island is used as a wedge issue to attack the DPP.

Ma Wen-chun, the KMT legislator who serves as co-chair of the defense committee of the Legislative Yuan, is among those to call for Tsai to visit Taiping Island. Ma is best known as the KMT legislator who stands accused of leaking secrets about Taiwan’s domestic submarine program to China and South Korea in order to try and sabotage it, as well as voting 135 times against increases to military spending.

Photo credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

At the same time, some DPP legislators are also among those to call for Tsai to visit, such as Hsu Chih-chieh and Lai Jui-lung. This is sometimes framed as an issue of dignity, in that all past presidents of Taiwan visited Taiping Island. This includes not only Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, but also Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president and the first non-KMT president in Taiwanese history.

Ma’s actions in visiting Itu Aba in 2016 were condemned by the United States, among others, for disrupting stability in the South China Seas regions. Likewise, with Philippines president Bongbong Marcos among those to congratulate incoming DPP president Lai Ching-te after his January election victory, this has been understood as signaling strengthening ties between Taiwan and the Philippines. Particularly with the interests of the incoming Lai administration in mind, Tsai will not want to unnecessarily provoke the US or the Philippines.

That being said, Tsai did, in fact, send a warship to Taiping Island in 2016. This took place shortly after news broke that the construction of new anti-aircraft weapons systems on the island had led to Taiwan requesting Google to blur satellite images of the island. But as this was early in Tsai’s term, Tsai probably did not wish to be perceived as a pro-independence provocateur in the way that Chen was often perceived as being by breaking from past precedent in refusing to defend the sovereignty of Taiping Island–nor did Tsai wish to be perceived as weak when it comes to standing up against China so early against her term.

This is not the first time that the pan-Blue camp has sought to attack Tsai for not doing enough to defend Taiping Island or other outlying islands claimed by Taiwan in recent memory. In November of last year, the presence of Chinese and US military vessels around Itu Aba, also known as Taiping Island led to allegations by KMT legislators against the Taiwanese coast guard.

The attempt seemed to be to try and make the Tsai administration look as though it had compromised on national sovereignty. Claims centered around a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) conducted by the USS Dewey near the Spratly/Nansha Islands, which was later followed by a Chinese vessel. The claim, made by KMT legislator Chen I-Hsin, was that both US and Chinese vessels had entered three nautical miles from Itu Aba/Taiping Island to no reaction from the coast guard. This claim was denied by the government.

One expects contention regarding Taiping Island to continue, then, with the KMT leaning into calls for Tsai to visit. This would be a way to try and push the Tsai administration and DPP into a position where it would be perceived as provoking regional tensions and to try and disrupt warming ties between Taiwan and other potential allies against the threat of China.

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