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China blasts Obama over military 'muscle' in South China Sea
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) April 10, 2015

Taiwanese activists rally to keep 'Sunflower' spirit alive
Taipei (AFP) April 10, 2015 - Taiwanese rallied Friday to mark the anniversary of the end of the "Sunflower Movement", which saw demonstrators occupy parliament for more than three weeks in a move that shook warming relations with Beijing.

Protesters linked hands and shouted slogans urging the government to "return power to the people" as they circled the parliament in Taipei in the latest show of opposition to increasing mainland influence.

Fears that China is extending its control over Taiwan have been growing after a thaw in relations under current President Ma Ying-jeou, whose Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party suffered its worst ever showing in local polls in November.

Ma last week said ties with China have "returned to normal" since protesters took over parliament last year to show their anger at a planned trade pact they argued placed the island under Beijing's sway.

Police said around 1,000 people had turned out for Friday's protest, which came after hundreds rallied last month to mark the beginning of the occupation and several other wildfire demonstrations in recent weeks.

"I think Taiwan society has changed after the 'Sunflower Movement' and its impact continues to spread. I believe this force of change will help Taiwan move towards a positive direction," said Huang Kuo-chang, a scholar and prominent leader of the movement.

"The people will rise again if the Ma government (... hurts) Taiwan's national dignity or disregards the people's opinions," he said.

Demonstrators are pushing for revisions to the island's referendum law so that major controversial issues can more easily be put to a public vote, as well as a law to make it easier to oust elected officials deemed unfit for office.

The sunflower symbolises a desire to bring issues to light.

There have also a string of protests against Taiwan's bid to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and over controversial new Chinese flight routes over the Taiwan Strait.

China and Taiwan split in 1949 after a civil war, but Beijing still considers the self-ruled island part of its territory awaiting reunification. It has not ruled out using force should Taipei declare independence.

While the thaw in ties has seen a boost to trade and tourism, concerns over Chinese influence have led to a public backlash.

"I think the government has done many things that many people disapproved of such as under-the-table negotiations for the service trade deal," said high school student Lin Yu-tung.

"The people are the masters and we should have a say in major issues."

The "Sunflower Movement" activists that occupied parliament complained the trade pact -- one of several agreements signed with Beijing since Ma came to power in 2008 -- was agreed in secret and would leave the island vulnerable to Chinese influence.

It remains on hold pending an oversight bill, a key demand of protesters to guard against secret deals.

Beijing hit back Friday at US President Barack Obama's criticism of Chinese construction in the disputed South China Sea, arguing that it is Washington that has greater military "muscle".

The Chinese foreign ministry's retort came a day after Obama warned that Beijing was "using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions", amid reports of controversial Chinese land reclamation efforts.

"The US leader talked about China's 'sheer size and muscle', but one can also see clearly who has the biggest size and muscle in the world," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing.

She called on Washington to "genuinely make efforts to safeguard peace and stability" in the region.

Beijing asserts sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including areas near the coasts of other states, using a line that first appeared on Chinese maps in the 1940s.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all have overlapping claims.

Newly-released satellite images on the website of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank show a flotilla of Chinese vessels dredging sand onto a feature known as Mischief Reef.

Before-and-after images of other outcrops in the Spratly Islands show aircraft runways appearing from jungle, smooth-sided solid masses where there once was coral and man-made harbours replacing natural reefs.

Analysts say the pictures show how China is attempting to create "facts in the water" to bolster its territorial claim.

Manila, among the most vocal critics of Beijing's actions in the region, on Friday appealed to the international community to intervene conceding it and other countries were powerless to stop China's construction of the artificial islands.

"We are asking the international community to tell China that what it is doing is wrong, and to ask China to stop this reclamation work," Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose told AFP.

China's declared defence budget of 886.9 billion yuan ($142.9 billion) this year is 55 times the Philippines' 115.5 billion pesos ($2.6 billion).

Manila believes Beijing is rushing the reclamation to undermine a United Nations ruling expected next year on a Philippine challenge to its claims, Jose said.

"We think China has a plan and they think they have the means to do it and they can actually do it. So that's why they're doing it," he said.

On Thursday, Obama waded into the debate, telling a town hall meeting during a visit to Jamaica that Beijing should not push around countries with which it is in dispute in the South China Sea.

"Just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn't mean that they can just be elbowed aside," Obama said.

The United States has no claim of its own in the region, but broadly supports its Asian allies against Chinese pressure and has asserted that freedom of navigation is in its national interest.

Hua on Friday maintained that China has maintained "security and peace" in the region and was working with neighbouring countries.


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