Taiwan president makes waves with South China Sea visit


Wading into choppy political waters, Taiwan’s outgoing president Thursday paid a visit to a disputed islet in the South China Sea and called for peace as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines vie more aggressively for territory and influence in the region.

Ma Ying-jeou largely couched his visit to Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba, in conciliatory and eco-friendly terms. But even before his airplane touched down on the 0.2-square-mile outcropping, the trip was drawing criticism from U.S. officials, with one calling it “extremely unhelpful” for resolving disagreements.

Taiping — the largest naturally occurring land mass in the Spratly Islands — is claimed by the Philippines, mainland China and Vietnam and Taiwan, but is administered by Taiwan. Taiwan’s government under Ma has expended considerable effort to make the islet “low carbon” and turn it into a haven for storm-battered vessels of any nationality.

The palm-covered islet boasts a 10-bed hospital, a lighthouse and $129 million worth of solar panels, along with a small airport for military use. The hospital’s three doctors can treat people from any country, and Taiping sees about 10 foreign boats a year from mainland China and Vietnam as their captains seek safety during storms, Taiwanese authorities say. About 200 Taiwanese, including coast guard personnel, medical workers and scientists, are stationed on Taiping.

Ma on Thursday reiterated a proposal he made last year that the rival claimants put aside their territorial disputes and instead start talking about how to share resources in the 1.35 million-square-mile South China Sea, which is rich in fisheries and possibly fossil fuel reserves and is a key international shipping lane.
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