January 27, 2016 – Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-Jeou will visit a disputed island in the South China Sea tomorrow, his first trip to the self-claimed territory amid rising tensions in the region.
The announcement comes just weeks after Taiwanese coastguards drove off a Vietnamese fishing boat near Taiping Island, a Taiwan-administered islet in the Spratly archipelago.
The chain is also claimed in part or whole by Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
“The Taiping Island is an inherent part of the Republic of China’s territory,” Charles Chen, spokesman of the presidential office, said in a statement today, using the official name for Taiwan.
The purpose of the trip was to visit Taiwanese personnel stationed there ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, Chen said.
The only time a Taiwanese president has visited Taiping Island was in 2008, when former leader Chen Shui-bian went.
Ma, of the China-friendly ruling Kuomintang, has less than four months left of his term and will be succeeded by Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who won presidential elections in a landslide victory earlier this month.
The presidential office invited Tsai to join the trip, but the DPP said it did not plan to send any representative.
Taiwan has been boosting its presence in Taiping, the largest island in the Spratlys.
As part of efforts to strengthen defence capabilities, it inaugurated a solar-powered lighthouse, and expanded an airstrip and a pier on the island late last year.
Taiwanese officials have also flown to the island in recent years including interior and defence ministers.
China is seen by other Spratly claimants as the biggest threat in the South China Sea.
The Philippines and Vietnam have complained that China is becoming increasingly aggressive in the region.
China also sees Taiwan as part of its territory to be returned to its fold at some point, after the two split following a civil war on the mainland in 1949.
Separately, Taiwan conducted routine military drills yesterday in Kinmen county, a group of islands off the coast of China’s Fujian province.
There are fears that tensions between Taiwan and the mainland will escalate in the wake of Tsai being elected as president — the DPP is traditionally a pro-independence party and relations with Beijing are likely to cool following a rapprochement under the KMT.