US criticises Taiwan President Ma's planned visit to disputed South China Sea island

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou (centre) at the Scientific International Seminar on South China in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan 19, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

TAIPEI (REUTERS) - The U.S. has criticised Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's planned visit to the contested South China Sea island of Itu Aba on Thursday (Jan 28), saying the trip was "extremely unhelpful" and would not do anything to resolve disputes over the waterway.

Ma's office earlier announced that the president, who steps down in May, would fly to Itu Aba to offer Chinese New Year wishes to residents on the island comprising mainly Taiwanese coastguard personnel and environmental scholars.

But Ma's one-day visit to Itu Aba, known as Taiping in Taiwan, comes amid growing international concern over rising tensions in the waterway and quickly drew the ire of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei in the absence of formal diplomatic ties.

"We are disappointed that President Ma Ying-jeou plans to travel to Taiping Island," AIT spokeswoman Sonia Urbom said in an email to Reuters. "Such an action is extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea."

The United States wanted Taiwan and all claimants to lower tensions, rather than taking actions that could raise them, Urbom added.

Taiwan has just finished a US$100 million (S$143 million) port upgrade and a new lighthouse on Itu Aba, known as Taiping in Taiwan, which also has its own airstrip and fresh water.

The president's visit comes just after national elections in Taiwan that put in power the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its leader Tsai Ing-wen.

Mr Ma's office said it had asked Dr Tsai to send a representative, but the DPP said it had no plans to do so.

Taiwan claims most of the South China Sea based on maps from the late 1940s belonging to the ruling Nationalists, when they ruled all of China.

The Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated in a civil war with China's Communists. Both sides have been ruled separately since then, but Beijing deems Taiwan a wayward province to be retaken by force if necessary.

China's own claims in the South China Sea are based on Nationalist maps, but Taiwan has maintained it does not cooperate with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims in the strategically located waters.

Itu Aba is now the fourth largest island in the Spratlys after China's land reclamation work on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, Taiwan's coastguard said in October.

The last Taiwan president to visit Itu Aba was the DPP's Chen Shui-bian.

Asked to comment on President Ma's planned visit, the mainland Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated that China and Taiwan had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the waterway.

"Safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as safeguarding the overall interests of the Chinese nation is the common responsibility and obligation of compatriots across the straits," spokesman Ma Xiaoguang told reporters in Beijing.

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