Taiwan today 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. 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.
Linghu has previously accused the Philippines of “distorting the facts and misinterpreting the law” over Taiping during arbitration hearings. A ruling on the arbitration case is expected before May.
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.
Journalists will also be shown other facilities, including a hospital, a temple and a post office. Ma will speak to reporters after the group returns later today.