Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou flew to Itu Aba island in the disputed South China Sea on Thursday to reaffirm Taipei’s sovereignty over the outpost, ignoring criticism from Washington over the trip, Reuters reported.
Ma’s one-day visit to Itu Aba comes amid growing international concern over rising tensions in the South China Sea, especially in the wake of Beijing’s rapid creation of seven man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago, the news agency said.
Washington, Taiwan’s biggest ally, on Wednesday called Ma’s trip “extremely unhelpful”, adding it would not do anything to resolve disputes over the waterway.
Beijing, meanwhile, reiterated that China and Taiwan had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea.
Taiwan has just finished a US$100 million port upgrade and built a new lighthouse on Itu Aba, known as Taiping in Taiwan.
The island, which lies in the Spratlys, also has an airstrip, a hospital and fresh water.
Both Taiwan and China claim most of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims.
Vietnam’s top official in Taiwan said Hanoi “resolutely opposes” Ma’s visit. The Philippine Foreign Ministry said all parties had a shared responsibility to refrain from actions that could increase tensions.
Ma’s office on Wednesday said the president, who steps down in May, would offer Lunar New Year wishes to residents on Itu Aba, mainly Taiwanese coastguard personnel and environmental scholars.
“This is an exercise in national sovereignty, full of legitimacy and necessity,” Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Given the tensions over the South China Sea, few senior political officials from any of the claimants have visited the contested region in recent years.
Ma’s visit follows elections won by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which declined a request by Ma to send a representative along.
The DPP said Taiwan had a responsibility to maintain peace and stability in the area.
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