Monday, February 4, 2008

Spratlys stunt landing

Mr. Chen's Spratly crash landing
Jonathan Adams, FEER Forum, February 4, 2008

A hallmark of Chen Shui-bian’s presidency has been straining relations with China and the U.S. to the limit. Now, to the list of countries he’s deeply annoyed, add Vietnam and the Philippines.

Ah-bian, as Mr. Chen styles himself, touched down in a military aircraft Saturday on Taiping Island—one of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. His trip was made possible by Taiwan’s recent completion of an airstrip on the rocky outcrop it’s claimed since 1946.

Mr. Chen said he was merely there to inaugurate the airstrip, visit Taiwanese troops as he traditionally does ahead of Chinese New Year, and tout an initiative on conflict resolution and environmental protection for the islands. “He said the airstrip is only for the purpose of humanitarian assistance,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Phoebe Yeh told me Sunday. “We don’t want to be provocative.”

Maybe. But one clear result of the trip was to provoke—unnecessarily—Taiwan’s neighbors. In addition to Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, China, Brunei and Malaysia also claim all or part of the Spratlys, a rocky, guano-covered archipelago in an area thought to be rich in oil and natural gas.

Vietnam and the Philippines were the most peeved—both lodged official complaints last week ahead of the expected visit, said Ms. Yeh. Vietnam has strongly protested the building of the airstrip from the get-go in mid-2006. It views any Taiwanese activity on the island as a violation of its sovereignty. Vietnam also happens to be an increasingly important destination for Taiwanese investment—indeed, it’s touted by Mr. Chen’s own government as an alternate production platform to China. Not the best country, then, to needlessly irritate.

Meanwhile, the trip ticked off Taiwan’s democratic neighbor to the south, with whom it also has close economic ties. In a statement, Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo called Mr. Chen’s ceremony to inaugurate the new airstrip “lamentable,” adding: “It is unfortunate that Taiwan is resorting to what may be considered as irresponsible political posturing that could be of no possible advantage to the peace-loving Taiwanese people.”

Mr. Romulo’s right, at least on that last point—the Taiwanese people gained little from the stunt. Except President Chen himself, that is. Cynics in Taiwan said the trip was intended to win support for Mr. Chen’s party’s candidate in presidential elections next month.

More likely, it was a move by President Chen to assert both his own authority and to expand, if ever so slightly, Taiwan’s international space. Mr. Chen’s party suffered a crippling blow in recent legislative elections and he’s due to step down in May; he’s keen to show Taiwanese he’s not out of the picture just yet.

Indeed, the Spratlys trip was typical of President Chen’s smashmouth diplomatic style. It brought brief attention to Taiwan and its claim to independent sovereignty, at a cost to the goodwill it enjoys in the region and internationally. Mr. Chen’s successor would do well to calculate whether such stunts really serve Taiwan’s long-term interests.

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