TAIPEI Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou flew to Itu Aba island in the disputed South China Sea on Thursday to reaffirm Taipei's sovereignty over the outpost, ignoring criticism from Washington over the trip.
Ma's one-day visit to Itu Aba comes amid growing international concern over rising tensions in the South China Sea, especially in the wake of Beijing's rapid creation of seven man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago.
The Taiwanese Defence Ministry told Reuters that Ma had departed for Itu Aba. He is scheduled to hold a news conference around 1100 GMT on his arrival back in Taiwan.
Washington, Taiwan's biggest ally, on Wednesday called Ma's trip "extremely unhelpful", adding it would not do anything to resolve disputes over the waterway.
Taiwan has just finished a $100 million port upgrade and built a new lighthouse on Itu Aba, known as Taiping in Taiwan. The island, which lies in the Spratlys, also has an airstrip, a hospital and fresh water.
Both Taiwan and China claim most of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims.
Vietnam's top official in Taiwan said Hanoi "resolutely opposes" Ma's visit. The Philippine Foreign Ministry said all parties had a shared responsibility to refrain from actions that could increase tensions.
Ma's office on Wednesday said the president, who steps down in May, would offer Chinese New Year wishes to residents on Itu Aba, mainly Taiwanese coastguard personnel and environmental scholars.
"This is an exercise in national sovereignty, full of legitimacy and necessity," Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Given the tensions over the South China Sea, few senior political officials from any of the claimants have visited the contested region in recent years.
Ma's visit follows elections won by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which declined a request by Ma to send a representative along. The DPP said Taiwan had a responsibility to maintain peace and stability in the area.
Beijing on Wednesday reiterated that China and Taiwan had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea.
The claims of both China and Taiwan are based on maps from the late 1940s belonging to the Nationalists, when they ruled all of China. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists.
China has appeared unfazed by Taiwan's upgrading work on Itu Aba. Military strategists say that is because Itu Aba could fall into China's hands should it ever take over Taiwan, which it deems a wayward province to be retaken by force if necessary.
The 46-hectare (114-acre) island supports around 180 people, about 150 of them coastguard personnel.
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Dean Yates)
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