Asia

Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou to go to South China Sea island

  • 27 January 2016
  • From the section Asia
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (C) is greeted by participants before he addresses attendees about South China islands during the Scientific International Seminar on South China inside Howard Civil Service International House in Taipei, Taiwan, 19 January 2016. Image copyright European Photopress Agency
Image caption Mr Ma will visit Taiwanese personnel on the island ahead of Lunar New Year

Outgoing Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is to visit a disputed island in the South China Sea on Thursday.

Taiwan claims the island - which it calls Taiping but is also known as Itu Aba - in the Spratly archipelago, a chain also claimed by China and other neighbours.

Mr Ma, who is seen to be friendly towards China, has less than four months left in his presidency.

Incoming president Tsai Ing-wen will not send a representative on the trip.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands. It also sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually be reunited with the mainland.

Some or all of the Spratly Islands and their surrounding waters are also claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Why is Ma Ying-jeou visiting now? Cindy Sui, BBC News, Taipei

In November, the Philippines argued in arbitration it has initiated against mainland China that Taiping is just a rock not a habitable island, so its owner is only entitled to claim 12 nautical miles of surrounding sea, not a full exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Taipei says that "distorted the facts and misinterpreted the law", and if accepted, could raise serious issues for other countries holding small islands.

But Taiwan will also soon have a new president, from a party that has traditionally not placed as much importance on territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Mr Ma is expected to use the visit to not only reassert Taiwan's claim to Taiping, but also reiterate his call for all claimants to resolve this issue by shelving territorial claims and jointly exploring and sharing the area's resources.

"The Taiping Island is an inherent part of the Republic of China's territory," said presidential spokesman Charles Chen, using the official name for Taiwan.

He said the purpose of the trip was to visit Taiwanese personnel based there, ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.

Mr Ma will address reporters at a press conference after his trip, he added.

The spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office which handles cross-straits relations, said in response that China had an "undisputable authority" over islands in the South China Sea.

"Protecting the rights of the country and keeping its territory whole, protecting the rights of the Chinese, are the shared responsibilities and duties of China and Taiwan," said Ma Xiaoguang.

Taiwan has been building up a presence on Itu Aba/Taiping, constructing a lighthouse and upgrading a port. The largest natural island in the Spratly chain, it also has its own airstrip and a hospital.

It is now the fourth biggest island overall in chain, after China's land reclamation activities on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, said Taiwan's coastguard last year.

About 180 people live on the island which saw its last presidential visit in 2008, most of them coastguard personnel.

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