TAIPEI, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian set out for a landmark visit to the disputed Spratly Islands on Saturday to assert a territorial claim in a move likely to upset China, Vietnam and other nations.
Chen’s decision to visit the Spratlys was to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty, a card that the ruling party had been using to try and woo voters ahead of the presidential elections on March 22.
During the March election, a referendum will also be held to ask voters whether Taiwan should join the United Nations under the name “Taiwan”.
Chen, dogged by criticism that he accomplished too little as his eight-year term winds down, flew in a military aircraft to Taiping Island in the Spratlys, to visit a recently completed airstrip for maritime rescue work, military sources said.
“The president will be there around noon today,” said an official at Taiwan’s defence ministry. He declined to give further details.
Analysts said Chen was making the visit for several reasons. “He wants to tell the Taiwan people that he’s still in control. It is also a strong signal to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty ahead of the U.N. referendum,” said Andrew Yang, a political analyst at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.
The 1,150-metre (3,770-ft) airstrip completed in late January will supplement Taiwan coastguard and military facilities on Taiping, which is the biggest in the Spratly chain at 489,500 square metres (120 acres) and 1,000 km south of Taiwan.
“He’s going to show he’s the president, for face, that’s the most obvious,” said Su Chi, a defence specialist with the Nationalist Party (KMT). “Whether this will lead to more conflict isn’t certain.”
The Spratly Islands, a string of rocky outcrops in the South China Sea possibly holding large oil and gas deposits, are also claimed by neighbouring Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Last year, the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung established a green turtle reserve on Taiping in a bid to stop hunting.
Vietnam has protested to Taiwan twice in the last two months as airstrip construction progressed. (Reporting by Baker Li, Lee Chyen Yee and Ralph Jennings; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)