Mumbai, April 9: Ma Ying-jeou merely “stretched his legs” at the VIP lounge, but it nearly caught airport and intelligence officials on the wrong foot.
A plane carrying the Taiwan President made an unscheduled stopover at Mumbai international airport early on Sunday morning, barely an hour after air traffic (ATC) officials had been alerted about a “VVIP landing”.
India does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which China sees as part of its own territory and hopes for a reunification. The two had split after civil war in 1949. Only 23 countries recognise Taiwan as an independent nation.
Ma is the first Taiwanese President to set foot in India in 60 years.
Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) reported today that the Africa-bound flight was scheduled to stop for refuelling in Dubai but a change in plans was announced at the last minute.
Sources said Ma spent nearly an hour and a half at the VIP lounge “stretching his legs and freshening up”. He later left for his onward journey to Africa at 7.20 on Sunday morning.
But the silence around the stopover surprised even airport and intelligence officials in Mumbai. ATC officials at Mumbai airport said they were in the dark about the stopover till about an hour before Ma’s unscheduled landing at 5.15am.
“We were alerted around 4am that a VVIP flight would be landing. I am told the instruction to allow it smooth landing and refuelling came to us as well as the CISF from Delhi,” said an airport source.
Officials in the CISF, the paramilitary force that guards key installations, said they too were asked to prepare for the landing just an hour in advance. “We had no clue about it and the instruction came to us from the ministry of external affairs via our senior officials in Delhi,” said a CISF source at Mumbai airport.
The CNA today quoted Taiwan’s foreign minister Timothy Yang as saying that the decision to withhold information about the surprise stopover was based on an agreement with Indian authorities.
Foreign ministry spokesperson James Chang was quoted by the news agency as saying that the stopover was “a sign of the improving ties with India”. He also said the decision was kept under wraps till the last minute keeping in mind the “sensitivity” involved.
The CNA also reported the spokesperson as saying that Taiwan planned to open a second liaison office in India, in addition to the one already in New Delhi.
So far, Delhi has never allowed officials from Taiwan to visit India, though over 30,000 Taiwanese come every year for sightseeing or business trips.
In 2010, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had made a low-key visit to Taiwan.