( dpa ) - Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian on Saturday boarded a military plane to the disputed Spratly Islands to assert a sovereignty claim, in a move likely to provoke tensions in the region.
In the first trip by any president from Taiwan to assert sovereignty of the Spratly Islands, Chen boarded a C-130 transport plane before dawn at the air force base in the southern county of Pingtung, Taiwanese television media reported.
Both the Defense Ministry and the Presidential Office declined to comment on the sensitive trip, nor would they comment on how Taiwan was able to obtain permission from the Philippines to fly through its airspace since the Philippines is one of the claimants of the disputed island chain.
Defense Minister Lee Tien-yu has said the president is the commander-in-chief and there is nothing wrong with him inspecting troops garrisoned on Taiping, the largest islet of the archipelago, claimed by six countries in the region.
The Taiwanese military dispatched an unspecified number of F-16 warplanes and Kidd-class destroyers to escort the president's transport plane, TV news reports said.
The military recently completed an airstrip on Taiping to facilitate air transport between Taiwan and the politically sensitive archipelago. It sent an air force C-130 cargo plane for a test run of the 1,150 metre runway.
The move immediately drew protests from Vietnam, which in a statement earlier this month, said it "resolutely opposes all acts violating the sovereignty of Vietnam over the archipelagos" and demanded Taiwan stop similar actions in the region.
Vietnam, Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei each claim all or part of the Spratlys and the nearby Paracels, and all but Brunei have a military presence on one or more of the atolls. The waters around the islands are believed to contain substantial petroleum reserves.