TAIPEI • Taiwanese President Ma Ying- jeou, ignoring criticism from the United States, flew to a disputed island in the South China Sea yesterday to reaffirm Taipei's sovereignty and said the trip was aimed at promoting peace.
His one-day visit to Itu Aba came amid growing international concern over tension in the South China Sea, especially in the wake of Beijing's rapid creation of seven man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago.
The US, Taiwan's biggest ally, had on Wednesday called Mr Ma's trip "extremely unhelpful", adding that it would not do anything to resolve disputes over the waterway.
The purpose of the trip was to visit Taiwanese personnel stationed there ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, according to the presidential office. Mr Ma, who will step down in May, said he had told the US about his trip beforehand.
"The US and we (Taiwan), when it comes to the big direction for the South China Sea, are the same," he told reporters on his return. "We all hope for peace, hope there is no conflict or war."
Beijing yesterday reiterated that China and Taiwan had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. It regards Taiwan as a wayward province to be taken back by force if necessary.
Taiwan, which goes by the official name of Republic of China, is recognised by only a handful of countries.
Mr Ma also said that his trip was aimed at bringing attention to Taiwan's stand. Both China and Taiwan claim most of the South China Sea, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims.
The Philippines has launched an arbitration case against China in The Hague which Mr Ma said could result in a ruling affecting Taiwan.
The visit was now or never because of the pending court decision that might rule on land formations, which could determine economic- zone rights for claimants.
"Our diplomatic situation is difficult. On the topic of the South China Sea, we want to talk but have nowhere to file our complaint," Mr Ma said. "This was the time to go. If I did not go now, it would have been too late."
Vietnam's top official in Taiwan said Hanoi "resolutely opposed" the visit. The Philippine Foreign Ministry said all parties had a shared responsibility to refrain from actions that could increase tension.
Taiwan has just finished a US$100 million (S$143 million) port upgrade and built a new lighthouse on Itu Aba, known as Taiping in Taiwan.
The 46ha island, which lies in the Spratlys, also has an airstrip, a hospital and fresh water. It supports about 180 people, most of them coast-guard personnel.
Mr Ma's visit follows the Jan 16 elections won by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, which declined a request from him to send a representative along.