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Taiwan undersea oil plans raise neighbors' eyebrows

The island's exploration efforts in the South China Sea could fuel tensions with China and other nations with territorial claims there. Heated rhetoric last year prompted the US to intervene.

By Correspondent / January 3, 2013



Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan, a normally quiet claimant to portions of the disputed South China Sea, plans to explore for undersea oil there, a move likely to test fragile relations with China and upset major Southeast Asian nations.

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Ringed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and others, the waters are believed to hold as many as 213 billion barrels of oil but competing claims from the six bordering nations have fueled tensions, prompting US officials to step in last year to urge calm.

Taiwan’s Bureau of Mines and its top energy company plan to explore this year for some of that oil near an islet that the government holds in the Spratly archipelago, a spokesman for the company said.

Taiwan’s search for oil would remind five competing nations that it still has clout, despite old foe China. The more powerful Beijing forbids its allies around Asia from talking to Taipei and has its own ambitions in the disputed 3.5 million-square-kilometer (1.4 million-square-mile) sea.

“Taiwan seems to be seeking ways to remind other nations of its sovereignty claims,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior Asia adviser with the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Taiwan doesn’t want to be ignored or forgotten.”

China has considered self-ruled Taiwan part of its territory since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, chilling ties until 2008 when the two sides put aside political differences to discuss trade and economic links.

But new incidents have challenged the fragile détente, and Taiwan is already angry about last year’s Chinese passports that claim two Taiwanese landmarks. Oil could be next, as Taiwan says it has no plans to share its search with China.

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