Sovereignty and legacy factors in President Ma’s Taiping visit

By Ralph Jennings and Christopher Bodeen ,AP

TAIPEI — Seeking to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty and build his legacy, President Ma Ying-jeou paid a visit Thursday to an even smaller island also claimed by mainland 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 Kuomintang administration. Nature of the Dispute Roughly 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) south of Taiwan and 46 hectares (110 acres) in size with a population of around 200 people, mostly military personnel, 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 US$100 million to improve the island’s airstrip and build a wharf capable of allowing its 3,000-ton Coast Guard cutters to dock. On Thursday, 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.