Ma Ying-jeou visits islet in disputed East China Sea territory

Mr Ma (right) waving from the lighthouse yesterday during the unveiling of the Taiwan- Japan Cooperation Monument on Pengjia Islet, off Taiwan's north-east coast, on the eve of the third anniversary of a fishery agreement between Taiwan and Japan.
Mr Ma (right) waving from the lighthouse yesterday during the unveiling of the Taiwan- Japan Cooperation Monument on Pengjia Islet, off Taiwan's north-east coast, on the eve of the third anniversary of a fishery agreement between Taiwan and Japan.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Trip seen as move to reaffirm Taiwan's sovereignty before his term ends in May

TAIPEI • Outgoing Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday landed on an islet in the disputed East China Sea to reaffirm Taiwan's sovereignty before his term ends next month.

The East China Sea is home to the Diaoyu Islands, also known as Senkaku or Diaoyutai - as they are called in China, Japan and Taiwan respectively - a group of islands in the centre of a turf war among the three parties.

Mr Ma, who has sought to position Taiwan as a mediator in the region's numerous territorial disputes while asserting its own claims during his eight years in office, unveiled a maritime peace monument on the Pengjia Islet, which is controlled by Taiwan and not claimed by Japan and China, the Associated Press reported.

His visit came ahead of the third anniversary of a pact between Taiwan and Japan to address fishing disputes in their overlapping waters today.

Pengjia, located 56km from Taiwan, is Taiwan's northernmost territory. It has about 40 occupants, a weather station and coast guard facilities.

Mr Ma last visited Pengjia in September 2012, during which he laid out the details of his East China Sea peace initiative amid escalating spats among the claimants, according to the Central News Agency.

During the ceremony, he labelled Pengjia a "little Diaoyutai" as it is the nearest Taiwan-controlled island to the controversial chain of islands. He added that a peace policy is always welcomed anywhere because "there is no winner in war and no loser in peace", the udn.com quoted him as saying.

Ignoring criticism from the United States in January, Mr Ma flew to a disputed island in the South China Sea to reaffirm Taipei's sovereignty and said the trip was aimed at promoting peace.

His one-day visit to Itu Aba, which Taiwan calls Taiping, 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 presidential office claimed the purpose of that trip was to visit Taiwanese personnel stationed there ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, according to Reuters.

China 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 to Itu Aba was aimed at bringing attention to Taiwan's stand. China and Taiwan claim most of the South China Sea, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims.

Vietnam's top official in Taiwan said Hanoi was "resolutely opposed" to the visit to Itu Aba, while the Philippine Foreign Ministry said all parties had a shared responsibility to refrain from actions that could increase tension.

Taiwan had just completed a US$100 million (S$135 million) port upgrade and built a new lighthouse on Itu Aba.

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 visits follow the Jan 16 elections won by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, which declined a request from him to send a representative along.

Ms Tsai Ing-wen will succeed him as president on May 20.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'Ma Ying-jeou visits islet in disputed East China Sea territory'. Print Edition | Subscribe