Outgoing president Ma Ying-jeou on Thursday will visit Taiping, an island it claims in the disputed South China Sea.
Taiping lies in the Spratly archipelago, a chain of islands claimed by China. Some of these islands as well as their surrounding waters are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Charles Chen, a presidential spokesperson, said Ma will travel to the island to visit Taiwanese coast guard personnel ahead of the lunar New Year. Taiping, known as Itu Abu in China, is the largest natural island on the chain. It’s home to about 180 people mostly from the coast guard.
Ma has been seen as traditionally friendly toward China, which still views Taiwan as a breakaway province it will eventually reunify with.
“Protecting the rights of the country and keeping its territory whole, protecting the rights of the Chinese, are the shared responsibilities and duties of China and Taiwan,” said Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang.
Ma Ying-jeou has only four months left in office.
President elect Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party did not send a representative on the trip. She’s also been known to not place much emphasis on Taiwan’s territorial claims.
In November, The Philippines argued in a lawsuit against mainland China that Taiping is just a rock and not a habitual island, so its owner can only claim 12-nautical-miles of surrounding sea rather than an exclusive economic zone.
Taiwan responded by saying the claim “distorted the facts and misinterpreted the law.” It warned that if accepted, the notion could raise serious issues for countries claiming small islands.
During his visit, Ma is expected to reiterate Taiwan’s claim over the island as well as his call on neighbors to drop territorial ambitions and work together on exploring and sharing the region’s resources.
Taiwan has been developing Taiping by building a lighthouse and upgrading a port there. In the chain, it’s outsized only by China’s artificial islands, which it has been building through land reclamation that has angered its neighbors.