Ma's office earlier announced that the president, who steps down
in May, would fly to Itu Aba on Thursday to offer Chinese New Year
wishes to residents on the island, mainly Taiwanese coastguard
personnel and environmental scholars.
But Ma's one-day visit to Itu Aba, known as Taiping in Taiwan, comes
amid growing international concern over rising tensions in the
waterway and quickly drew the ire of the American Institute in
Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei in the absence of
formal diplomatic ties.
"We are disappointed that President Ma Ying-jeou plans to travel to
Taiping Island," AIT spokeswoman Sonia Urbom said in an email to
"Such an action is extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to
the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea."
The United States wanted Taiwan and all claimants to lower tensions,
rather than taking actions that could raise them, Urbom added.
On a visit to Beijing on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John
Kerry said Washington and Beijing needed to find a way to ease
tensions in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in
ship-borne trade passes every year.
"We talked about the possibility of a diplomatic way forward and
Foreign Minister Wang Yi accepted the idea that it would be worth
exploring whether or not there was a way to reduce the tensions and
solve some of the challenges through diplomacy," Kerry said.
Both Taiwan and China claim most of the South China Sea. Vietnam,
the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims.
Vietnam's most senior official in Taiwan said Hanoi "resolutely
opposes" Ma's planned visit.
NEW PORT AND LIGHTHOUSE
Itu Aba lies in the Spratly archipelago, where China's rapid
construction of seven man-made islands has drawn alarm across parts
of Asia and been heavily criticized by Washington.
Taiwan has just finished a $100 million port upgrade and built a new
lighthouse on Itu Aba, which has its own airstrip, a hospital and
Ma's visit follows elections won by the independence-leaning
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Ma's office said it had asked
DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen to send a representative, but the party said
it had no plans to do so.
Beijing, recognized by most of the world as the head of "one China",
deems Taiwan a wayward province to be retaken by force if necessary.
Yann-huei Song, a prominent Taiwan scholar who advises the
government on South China Sea issues, said Ma was making the trip to
make sure Taiwan, recognized by only a handful of countries, had a
"No one is listening to Taiwan," Song, who is a research fellow with
the prestigious Academia Sinica in Taiwan, told Reuters. "You are
not allowed to participate in the multilateral dispute mechanism.
What would you do?"
[to top of second column]
Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore's ISEAS Yusof
Ishak Institute, said he expected the Philippines and Vietnam to
lodge a strong protest.
"But I do think it is unlikely they would stage a similar visit
involving a senior political figure going to one of their own
occupied islands ... that would risk inflaming relations with China
and neither want to go that far," Storey said.
Asked to comment on Ma's planned visit, the mainland's Taiwan
Affairs Office reiterated that China and Taiwan had a common duty to
protect Chinese sovereignty in the waterway.
"Safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity as well
as safeguarding the overall interests of the Chinese nation is the
common responsibility and obligation of compatriots across the
straits," spokesman Ma Xiaoguang told reporters in Beijing.
The claims of both China and Taiwan are based on maps from the late
1940s belonging to the Nationalists, when they ruled all of China.
The Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese
civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists.
But it has appeared unfazed by Taiwan's upgrading work on Itu Aba.
Military strategists say that is because Itu Aba could fall into
China's hands should it ever take over Taiwan.
Dustin Wang, a long-time Taiwanese scholar on the South China Sea
who has visited Itu Aba, said one of Ma's goals was to highlight the
island's civilian uses.
"Ma will demonstrate that facilities on the island, like the
hospital, provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief," he
Itu Aba was now the fourth largest island in the Spratlys after
China's land reclamation work on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and
Subi Reef, Taiwan's coastguard said in October.
The island supports around 180 people, about 150 of them coastguard
personnel who have had oversight of the 46-hectare (114-acre) island
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom in
Beijing, Sui-Lee Wee in Singapore and Greg Torode in Hong Kong;
Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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