TAIPEI, Taiwan

Seeking to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty and build his legacy, President Ma Yingjeou paid a visit today to an even smaller island also claimed by China.

Defying rare criticism from the U.S., Ma flew to the island of Taiping in the South China Sea and sought to cast Taiwan as a peaceful, humanitarian player in a region where China’s robust assertions of its territorial claims are sharpening disputes with its neighbors.

Ma cited infrastructure developments, including a 10-bed hospital and a lighthouse, saying they reinforced Taiwan’s claim of sovereignty and granted it rights over the surrounding waters. “All this evidence fully demonstrates that Taiping Island is able to sustain human habitation and an economic life of its own. Taiping Island is categorically not a rock, but an island,” Ma said.

Ma had invited along his successor, President-elect Tsai Ing-wen of the independence leaning Democratic Progressive Party, but she declined the offer, apparently to clarify the difference between her and Ma’s unpopular China-friendly Nationalist Party administration.

Nature of the dispute

Roughly 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) south of Taiwan and 46 hectares (110 acres) in size, Taiping is the largest naturally occurring island in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly islands. However, it has recently been eclipsed in size by islands China has built up from reefs and shoals. China has constructed housing, ports, airstrips and other infrastructure on the newly created islands, which others say is exacerbating tensions in the strategically vital region. While Taiwan and China share identical claims to almost the entire South China Sea and its islands, reefs and atolls, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also say parts of the strategically vital sea belong to them. Amid international litigation over the competing claims, Taiwan wants to ensure Taiping retains its status as an island with accompanying rights to surrounding waters, rather than simply that of a rock unable to sustain human habitation.

Taiwan’s role

Taiwan has been largely passive in the dispute, unlike China, which has deployed civilian vessels, coast guard ships and even oil rigs to assert its claims and intimidate its rivals. However, the island has also been upgrading its outpost on Taiping, spending more than $100 million to improve the island’s airstrip and build a wharf capable of allowing its 3,000- ton coast guard cutters to dock. Today, Ma laid out what he called the South China Sea Peace Initiative Roadmap promoting cooperation rather than confrontation, sharing rather than monopolizing, and pragmatism rather than intransigence. Ma drew a contrast with China’s approach, saying Beijing had not advocated peaceful sharing of resources. Incoming President Tsai, meanwhile, has pledged to uphold Taiwan’s claims while avoiding conflict.

China’s response

Although Ma’s presence on the island highlighted Taiwan’s status as a self-governing democracy, Beijing wasn’t outwardly bothered by his trip there. Responding to a question on the matter today, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the islands have been Chinese “since ancient times,” but that Beijing was committed to maintaining freedom of navigation, peace, stability, development and prosperity in the South China Sea.”People from both sides of the (Taiwan) Strait have the responsibility to maintain the ancestral property of the Chinese nation,” Hua said. China and Taiwan hold identical claims to the South China Sea, aligning with Beijing’s “one China principle” that considers them two parts of a single Chinese nation. Any renouncing of Taiwan’s claims in the area would likely be frowned on by Beijing, which has threatened to retaliate against formal changes in Taiwan’s legal status with military force.

Ma’s motives

Ma is constitutionally barred from seeking a third four-year term and is preparing to leave office in May amid dismal public approval ratings. His Nationalist Party was hammered in the Jan. 16 elections, with Tsai taking 56 percent of the vote and her party winning 68 of 113 seats in the legislature, its first-ever majority. Ma has been seeking to leave on a high note, as witnessed by his historic summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, the first meeting between leaders of the two sides since they split amid civil war in 1949. “It’s for his legacy,” said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan. “Ma would like to be called the one who really breaks the barrier between Taipei and Beijing and lays the cornerstone for eventual reunification.”

Tsai’s decision

Taiwan’s president-elect declined to join the trip in an apparent effort to disassociate herself from Ma. The DPP takes a more guarded approach to relations with China and she has refused to endorse China’s basic conditions for dialogue, casting new uncertainty over the relationship that had grown substantially closer under Ma. Tsai also wants to build ties with the United States, and by declining to join Ma’s trip she avoided being netted in the U.S. State department’s criticism.

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