Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou visited the largest island in the Spratly Archipelago Thursday, in a move the United States described as “extremely unhelpful” in the context of a larger territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
Ma landed in Taiping, an island Taiwan has invested significant military and civilian resources in, on Thursday, as an exercise in sovereignty, asserting the island is Taiwanese. The Spratly Islands are one of a number of regions in the South China Sea, also including the Paracel Islands, that China has claimed as its own, but is contested by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei also contests some of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, and Indonesia—while not yet involved in current territorial disputes—has vowed to bring China to an international court should it challenge their maritime borders.
“The Taiping outing is in keeping with the spirit of President Ma’s South China Sea Peace Initiative, which upholds the longstanding principles of safeguarding sovereignty, shelving disputes, pursuing peace and… promoting joint exploration and development,” Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Y. L. Lin said of the trip. Ma echoed this sentiment on the island, stating, “we all hope for peace, hope there is no conflict or war.”
He also made clear his visit to the island was intended to highlight that it was, indeed, a habitable island, and that it belonged to Taiwan: “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.”
When asked specifically whether the trip intended to highlight Taiwan’s sovereignty over the island, presidential spokesman Charles Chen said, “The Taiping Island is an inherent part of the Republic of China’s territory.”
Despite Ma’s office’s claim that the island belongs to the Republic of China, not the People’s Republic of China, Chinese state media is praising the event as a move in solidarity of China’s claims in the region. Ma’s party, the Kuomintang, lost the latest round of presidential elections largely over the perception that it is too friendly towards Beijing and not supportive of the independence movement. Tsai Ing-wen, the nation’s President-elect, declined an invitation to visit Taiping with Ma. China’s Global Times has interpreted this as a sign that Tsai does not want to be seen as supporting China’s claims over the Spratly Islands.
“While matching his policy on the South China Sea, Ma’s visit reminds Taiwanese of Tsai’s different stance on the issue. And the timing of the trip enables it to avoid being accused by the DPP [Democratic People’s Party, Tsai’s party] of a maneuver to woo voters and having its significance compromised,” the Global Times notes. It begrudgingly credits Ma: “Many of his policies don’t live up to the expectations of the Chinese mainland, but his unwavering stance on the South China Sea regardless of Washington’s pressurizing is worth praise.”
As Ma’s office claimed the visit was intended to highlight Taiwan, not China’s, sovereignty over the territory, this appears to be a bizarre take from the Chinese government. In a different article, the Global Times explains that the Kuomintang’s previous support of Beijing’s policies allows them to interpret the visit as a victory for China. “As the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) acknowledges that Taiwan and the Chinese mainland belong to one China, Ma’s trip signals a positive act in safeguarding Chinese people’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in the South China Sea.”
It also criticized Taiwan for not acting previously, alleging that the Taiwanese government feared upsetting Washington. “If Taiwan can join hands with the mainland, China will have the upper hand,” the column argues. “But Taiwan is not willing to do so because the US does not allow it to do so in the South China Sea disputes or the Diaoyu Island issue.”
The United States has reacted negatively to Ma’s visit. A spokeswoman at the American Institute in Taiwan, the main diplomatic venue between the two nations, described the American government as “disappointed” in the visit. “Such an action is extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea,” spokeswoman Sonia Urbom said.
China has adamantly opposed American intervention in the South China Sea dispute. The United States, in support of its allies in the Philippines and Vietnam, has maintained that international law defies China’s claims in the region. In October, and U.S. Navy ship traversed the contested area in a “freedom of navigation exercise.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted to the USS Lassen’s visit by arguing that America had “threatened China’s sovereignty and security interest, and has put the safety of personnel on the reefs in danger.