by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Ma Wen-chun/Facebook

TEN KMT LEGISLATORS visited Itu Aba/Taiping Island yesterday. Originally, a delegation of twenty legislators were to visit Itu Aba/Taiping Island, but clashes in the legislature over efforts by the KMT to expand legislative powers to allow for the ability to question private individuals and organizations and prosecute them if they do not comply went on into the late night on Friday. As such, half of the original delegation canceled. The visit was likely timed for before the Lai inauguration tomorrow, but the visit has since become overshadowed by news of the clashes, which in itself has become the main news item that casts a shadow over the inauguration.

The delegation was led by Ma Wen-chun, the co-chair of the defense committee in the legislature. This proves interesting optics to have her lead the delegation, considering that Ma previously faced scrutiny for leaking the details of Taiwan’s domestic submarine program to China and South Korea, and sought to cut or freeze military budgets 135 times. But the original delegation would have included Ma Wen-chun, former KMT chair Johnny Chiang, as well as legislators Cheng Cheng-chien, Chiu Chen-chun, Huang Chien-hao, Huang Jen, Hsu Chiao-hsin, Jonathan Lin, Lai Shyh-bao, Liao Hsien-hsiang, Lin Szu-ming, Lo Chih-chiang, Lo Ting-wei, Su Ching-chuan, Wang Hong-wei, Weng Hsiao-ling, and Yu Hao. TPP legislators Chen Chao-tzu, Lin Kuo-cheng, and Lin Yi-chun were also to attend.

The KMT delegation that traveled to Itu Aba/Taiping Island. Photo credit: Ma Wen-chun/Facebook

In the end, of the KMT, only Ma, Chiang, Cheng Cheng-chien, Huang Chien-hao, Huang Jen, Lai Shyh-bao, Liao Hsien-hsiang, Lo Ting-wei, Weng Hsiao-ling, and Chen Chao-tzu of the TPP attended. The delegation set out in the early morning hours for Itu Aba/Taiping Island and returned in the afternoon. Apart from visiting monuments and inspecting military infrastructure, during a dinner, Chiang made comments stating that the KMT hoped that soldiers on Itu Aba/Taiping Island did not need to feel so lonely and thanking them for their service. As is often the case with visits to Itu Aba/Taiping Island, the delegation also sent postcards from the mailbox located on the island.

The KMT, including lawmakers and former president Ma Ying-jeou, sought to pressure Tsai Ing-wen to visit Itu Aba/Taiping Island before the end of her term, as preceding ROC presidents have. Likewise, the KMT has sought to pressure incoming president Lai Ching-te of the DPP to do the same.

The trip was framed as for the purposes of reiterating the ROC’s claims over Itu Aba/Taiping Island. Itu Aba/Taiping Island is also claimed by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, though Taiwan de facto controls Itu Aba/Taiping Island and administers it. In particular, Taiwan has sought to dispute a ruling by an international tribunal in July 2016 that deemed Itu Aba/Taiping Island to be a rock, rather than an island, on the basis of it being unable to sustain life on its own without supply shipments from elsewhere.

The KMT may be seeking to appeal to its base, in depicting the DPP as uninterested and unwilling to defend the institutions and territorial integrity of the ROC. Nevertheless, at a time of strengthening ties between Taiwan and the US, as well as regional countries wary of the threat from China, forcing the Lai administration to make a statement on Itu Aba/Taiping Island may be with the aim of sabotaging such ties. The Philippines, for example, surprised after Lai’s election victory with a tweet by President “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. congratulating Lai, something interpreted as a sign of interest in strengthening ties with Taiwan, especially in light of how the Philippines itself has an increasingly tense relationship with China. As ROC territorial claims over Itu Aba/Taiping Island dovetail with PRC claims over Itu Aba/Taiping Island, this could also be with the aim of appealing to China.

Forcing Lai to make such a trip could also undercut relations with the US. After the improved US-Taiwan relationship that developed under the Tsai administration, Lai has had to work to emphasize to the US that he will maintain the moderate cross-strait policy of Tsai Ing-wen rather than be a dangerous pro-independence provocateur, in light of statements supportive of independence he made as Tainan mayor. But, with the US having taken a negative view of visits to Itu Aba/Taiping Island by Ma Ying-jeou in 2016, Lai would potentially be pushed into a move that would lead to his being perceived by the US as unpredictably willing to shake up regional stability.

Johnny Chiang sending a postcard from a mailbox on Itu Aba/Taiping Island. Photo credit: Johnny Chiang/Facebook

Indeed, the KMT has increasingly embraced US-skeptic rhetoric in past years, especially after the war in Ukraine. As dovetailing with its efforts to paint the Tsai administration as unwilling to defend the territorial integrity of the ROC, the KMT previously tried to criticize the Tsai administration for inaction over what it alleged was a US warship entering Itu Aba/Taiping Island’s territorial waters in November. The Coast Guard Administration has denied that this took place.

Yet the DPP has itself been divided on the issue of presidents visiting Itu Aba/Taiping Island in the past. Apart from that Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president, also visited Itu Aba/Taiping Island in 2008, near the end of his term, in January, some DPP legislators did in fact call on Tsai to visit Itu Aba/Taiping Island because of the precedent of outgoing ROC presidents visiting the island. The argument is that not going would be a sign of weakness. Or perhaps such lawmakers have their eyes on the economic value of potential billions of dollars of oil reserves around Itu Aba/Taiping Island, which Taiwan could lay claim to on the basis of an exclusive economic zone depending on whether Itu Aba/Taiping Island is classified as an island or a rock.

Still, that no DPP legislators joined the pan-Blue delegation to Itu Aba/Taiping Island, in spite of calls from the KMT that they do so, and in spite of such calls on Tsai by DPP legislators, reflects that the Tsai administration felt it inexpedient for DPP legislators to travel to Itu Aba/Taiping Island at this juncture. The DPP legislative caucus, then, fell in line with party discipline, with outgoing Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu having spoken publicly against the idea of such a trip in the past. The DPP has criticized the KMT for trying to ram bills through the legislature while still having time to make such trips to Itu Aba/Taiping Island. Yet with some calls from the pan-Green camp that Lai make a statement on Itu Aba/Taiping Island once he takes office, the issue is likely to continue to be debated.

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