Naypyidaw / AFP
Taiwan on Wednesday gave its first ever international press tour of a disputed island in the South China Sea to boost its claim, less than two months after a visit by its leader sparked protests from rival claimants.
Taiping is the largest island in the Spratlys chain and is administered by Taiwan, which sees it as part of its territory.
But the Spratlys are also claimed in part or whole by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei and have been at the centre of escalating rows.
A visit to Taiping by Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou in January triggered criticism from the United States which described it as “extremely unhelpful”, as well as protests from Vietnam and the Philippines.
But Taiwan remains undeterred in asserting its claim. “We hope that the international community will understand our position in safeguarding our sovereignty in the South China Sea and our effective administration of Taiping Island,” deputy foreign minister Bruce Linghu said after the group arrived on the island.
The Philippines is currently in the midst of an arbitration case against China at the Hague over the South China Sea. A ruling on the case is expected before May.
As part of its case, the Philippines argues that Taiping and other islands are just “rocks”, a categorisation which helps its broad claims in the area.
Taiwan disagrees, saying Taiping is a fully fledged island, a categorisation which entitles it to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
“It’s an indisputable fact that Taiping is an island and not a rock. Taiwan enjoys full rights associated with territorial waters,” Linghu said.
“Our sovereignty claim is firm but we are willing to put aside disputes to jointly develop the region with relevant countries for peace and mutual benefits,” he added.
Beefing up presence
Philippine foreign ministry spokesman Charles Jose urged caution, calling on all sides “to refrain from taking actions that will further complicate the situation in the South China Sea”. China, which claims almost all of the sea, said it too would invite foreign journalists to visit the Spratlys “when the time is ripe,” according to foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
“The Nansha islands (Spratlys) have always been Chinaâ€™s territory. Chinese people on both sides of the strait have the responsibility to safeguard our heritage.”
As part of efforts to strengthen defence capabilities on Taiping, Taiwan last year inaugurated a solar-powered lighthouse, an expanded airstrip and a pier, all stops on Wednesday’s press tour. The island is 0.51 square kilometre (0.19 square mile) in size.
Journalists were shown other facilities including a hospital, post office and temple, as well as sampling local produce and visiting a monument engraved with the words “Taiping Island” during the three-hour visit.
Rival claimants in the South China Sea have been beefing up their military presence in the disputed region, and other countries have complained China is becoming increasingly aggressive in pressing its case.
Beijing has reclaimed more than 2,900 acres of land from the South China Sea in less than two years in an intensive island-building campaign and has deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island there, according to Taipei and