Why Taiwan’s new pier on South China Sea islet may have put its leader in a spot

Tsai is now facing calls from her party to lead the inauguration of the renovated pier next month – in a symbolic reassertion of Taiwan’s claims over Taiping, also known as Itu Aba.

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Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CSA) said that the completed project cleared inspection checks on January 20.

“With the newly renovated pier, we plan to dispatch a 100-tonne petrol vessel to Taiping later this year for regular stationing,” an official said on Monday.

Military frigates and other vessels of up to 4,000 tonnes would be able to dock at the outer pier following the dredging and deepening of navigation channels, the official added.

The project, launched by Tsai in 2020, also includes a new typhoon-proof facility for the inner pier. Taiwan has controlled Taiping since 1956, and has a garrison as well as rockets stationed on the islet.

The renovation of the pier – built in 2015 – would help to boost Taiwanese coastguard patrol missions around Taiping, while strengthening humanitarian rescue efforts and scientific research, the CSA said.

The military can now also use larger ships to send ammunition and other supplies to Taiping, to bolster the combat readiness of coastguard and troops, it said.

The CSA will hold an inauguration ceremony for the renovated facilities, the official confirmed, but asked if Tsai would be invited to attend the event, he said: “Everything is still under planning.”

On Monday, lawmakers from Tsai’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party urged her to attend the ceremony to reassert Taiwan’s claims. Tsai has never visited Taiping.

“Every past president has visited Taiping and it is appropriate for President Tsai to do the same,” DPP legislator Hsu Chih-chieh said, referring to former leaders Chen Shui-bian of the DPP and Ma Ying-jeou of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT).

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DPP lawmaker Lai Jui-lung said a visit to Taiping would help Tsai fulfil her duties as leader of Taiwan, as it controls the islet.

Former KMT lawmaker Charles Chen I-hsin also joined the calls. “As a leader, President Tsai should visit Taiping to assert our sovereignty,” he said. “Otherwise, it could mean she or her government doesn’t care about our claim on Taiping.”

The Presidential Office, however, said it would make Tsai’s itinerary public if “there is such an arrangement”.

A visit by Tsai risks stoking tensions in the South China Sea, given the rival claims to Taiping – which lies about 1,500km (932 miles) from southern Taiwan and 853km from the Philippines.

The renovation project, which reportedly includes an extension of Taiping’s airstrip by more than a third, has drawn protests from the Philippines and Vietnam.

Speculation that the Tsai government ordered the renovation to help US warships dock at Taiping has also riled Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a part of China, to be reunited by force if necessary.

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The United States, like most countries, does not recognise Taiwan as an independent state, but is opposed to any attempt to take the self-governed island by force and is committed to supplying it with weapons.

Beijing has also accused the US of abusing international law by sending warships to the disputed South China Sea for military manoeuvres – passages Washington claims are in line with freedom of navigation rights in international waters.

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