Taiwan leader visits disputed Spratly islands: ministry


TAIPEI (AFP) — Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian on Saturday visited the Spratly islands, the defence ministry said, in a move aimed at underscoring Taipei’s claim to the disputed group but which will likely spark tensions in the region.

Soon after his arrival at Taiping islet, the president oversaw the opening ceremony of a newly-built runway, the ministry’s news agency said on its website.

It added that Chen, the first Taiwanese leader to visit the Spratlys, was “warmly welcomed” by troops stationed there after arriving at 10:32am (0232 GMT).

Speaking at the ceremony, Chen proposed a “Spratly Initiative” calling for a peaceful solution to the disputed claims of the group and promoting marine conservation in the region, a presidential statement said.

“Facing the complicated and sensitive territorial and sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, Taiwan urges the countries involved to peacefully resolve the issues” according to international regulations, the statement quoted Chen as saying.

Chen left Taipei early Saturday on his presidential jet to a base in Taiwan’s south where he took an air force C-130 transport plane to the Spratlys.

He spent several hours in Taiping, the biggest island in group, to inspect troops before the Lunar New Year on February 7. Defence Minister Lee Tien-yu and Interior Minister Lee Yi-yang accompanied the president.

Vietnam has strongly criticised Chen’s visit to the Spratly Islands, in a statement reported by state media Sunday.

“Taiwan has to take full responsibility for any consequence caused by this action,” said foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung in reaction to Chen’s visit to Taiping, the largest island in the group.

“Vietnam considers the action a serious escalation that violated Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty in regard to the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago and increased tension as well as complication in the region.”

Dung reiterated that Vietnam possesses strong historic evidence and legal grounds to confirm its sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

“Vietnam demands Taiwan put an immediate end to such violations in the region,” Dung said in a statement carried by the Vietnam News Agency.

The visit is sure to also irk China, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines who claim all or part of the potentially oil-rich islets in the South China Sea.

The Philippines on Saturday expressed “serious concern” over Chen’s trip and warned it could affect relative peace in the area.

“The Philippines, therefore, urges all parties concerned to exercise prudence, self-restraint and use diplomacy as the toll to settle disputes,” Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said.

Taiwanese media have said the visit was aimed at drumming up support for Frank Hsieh, the candidate for Chen’s independence-leaning ruling Democratic Progressive Party in the March 22 presidential election.

Hsieh is locked in a heated race with the opposition Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou to succeed Chen, who is to retire in May after eight years in office.

Taiwan’s defence ministry completed construction of the 1,150-metre-long (3,800-feet) runway on fortified Taiping in December, despite opposition from Vietnam.

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