On January 21, the Taiwan-based newspaper United Daily News reported that a C-130 transport aircraft in the Taiwan (ROC) Air Force conducted a one-day mission to the Spratly Islets, whose sovereignty is contested by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, China, Malaysia and the Philippines (United Daily News [Taiwan], January 21). The mission’s purpose is to test Taiwan’s recently completed 3,795-feet landing strip on the fortified Taiping islet, whose completion was confirmed by Taiwan Minister of Defense Lee Tien-yu on January 29 (Wen Wei Pao, January 30). The project began in mid-2006 but its progress has largely been kept carefully under wraps by the Taiwan Ministry of Defense.
The route that Taiwanese military aircrafts use to reach the islets passes through an area of the Philippine’s air information zone. The Taiwan-based newspaper Liberty Times reported that Taiwan obtained approval for passage from the Philippine Authorities for the purpose of “humanitarian rescue” (rendao jiuyuan) training, however, the Philippine’s de facto embassy in Taiwan denied that the embassy ever received any such request (Liberty Times [Taiwan], January 30; Central News Agency [Taiwan], January 30).
According to the Taiwan Ministry of Defense, the landing strip reflects and strengthens Taiwan’s sovereignty over the disputed islets. Moreover, the facility will allow Taiwan to demonstrate its capacity to be a constructive member in the global village, since the Ministry claims that the troops and facilities located on the islet will be able to provide logistic and emergency support to passing commercial ships and aircraft that encounter a crisis within its proximity. The Ministry insists that the strip would be used primarily for maritime rescue use and not for any offensive preparations for war (ETtoday [Taiwan], January 25).
Taiwanese newspapers widely speculate that President Chen Shui-bian will make a trip to the Spratly Islets either prior to the island’s March 22 presidential elections or possibly even before the Lunar New Year, which starts on February 7. According to a report carried by the Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Pao, Defense Minister Lee reportedly stated that he is ready to prepare for such a visit, but has to receive a specific directive from President Chen (Wen Wei Pao, January 30). The idea was reportedly discussed between Defense Minister Lee and President Chen during a meeting on January 21 (China Times, January 24). President Chen makes annual visits to the Taiwan-administered islands of Kinmen and Matsu, as well as other military facilities to boost troop morale stationed along Taiwan’s frontline to China. The Ministry of Defense insists that such a proposed trip should be considered as a routine inspection of military units.
Experts on military affairs speculate that since the F-16s’ fuel capacity is incapable of making the full length of the islet trip to escort the president, which is some 960 miles from Taiwan’s southern Kaohsiung city, the navy would probably send a Kidd-class destroyer to escort the president’s aircraft for the remaining 155 miles to the islet (China Times, January 24; United Daily News [Taiwan], January 20).