Taiwan is taking a more aggressive approach to reinforcing its territorial claims to contested islands in the South China and East China seas, in a move expected to escalate tensions in the region.
Taiwanese have been showing defiance over the islands, with a group of lawmakers sailing to the Spratly Islands yesterday. The government's national security chief earlier visited Taiping Island - the largest islet in the chain in the South China Sea - on the eve of a five-day live-fire drill that began on Saturday.
Meanwhile, President Ma Ying-jeou is planning a symbolic aerial inspection of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
Presidential Office spokesman Fan Chiang Tai-chi confirmed yesterday that Ma would fly to the Taiwan-held Pengjia Islet, an uncontested island 76 nautical miles east of the Diaoyus, and would pass close to the disputed islands.
"As this involves the safety of the president, details of the trip will be released only after arrangements have been made," Fan Chiang said. The flight could be a chance for Ma to uphold Taiwan's claim to the Diaoyus, which are controlled by Japan (which calls them the Senkakus) but claimed by Taipei and Beijing. He reiterated that Taiwan would be unyielding in its sovereignty claims over the Diaoyus.
Taiwanese media reported yesterday that Ma was planning to fly by helicopter to Pengjia on Sunday to visit the Taiwanese coastguard and meteorological personnel stationed there.
He may also attend a briefing about the latest developments in the Diaoyus, then fly east to the edge of Taiwan's air defence zone for an aerial inspection of the nearby disputed archipelago.
This would be the strongest stance Ma has taken in the thorny Diaoyus dispute since he became president in May 2008. Opposition politicians have mocked Ma, saying he should land on one of the Diaoyu Islands.
A once strong critic of Japan's claim to the Diaoyus, Ma softened his tone after becoming the Taiwanese leader, for fear of triggering a regional conflict. But those concerns have been sharply criticised by lawmakers and local media as too soft.
Taiwan's Foreign Ministry sharpened its tone yesterday over the Diaoyus issue, saying other countries had no right to make negative comments about Ma's planned trip, as Pengjia and the Diaoyus belong to Taiwan. The ministry rebuffed Vietnam's protest over Taiwan holding the five-day live-fire drill on Taiping.
Yesterday's visit by lawmakers to the Spratlys came on the heels of Friday's visit to Taiping by National Security Council Secretary General Hu Wei-chen. In a surprise visit, Hu led a group of senior officials on an inspection of the islet, just a day before the start of the live-fire drill. Hu was the most senior official to visit Taiping since 2008.
Led by legislator Lin Yu-fang, the group yesterday observed the drill carried out by Taiwan's coastguard.
According to Lin, 81mm mortars were among the munitions used in the drill.
Local media reported the Taiwanese army secretly deployed AT-4 anti-tank weapons, which are powerful enough to ward off any invading vessels approaching Taiping and the nearby Taiwan-held Chungchou Reef.