TAIPING – Taiwan on Wednesday, March 23, gave its first ever international press tour of a disputed island in the South China Sea to boost its claim, less than two months after a visit by its leader sparked protests from rival claimants.
Taiping is the largest island in the Spratlys chain and is administered by Taiwan, which sees it as part of its territory.
But the Spratlys are also claimed in part or whole by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei and have been at the center of escalating rows.
A visit to Taiping by Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou in January triggered criticism from the United States which described it as "extremely unhelpful," as well as protests from Vietnam and the Philippines.
But Taiwan remains undeterred in asserting its claim.
"We hope that the international community will understand our position in safeguarding our sovereignty in the South China Sea and our effective administration of Taiping Island," deputy foreign minister Bruce Linghu said as the group visited the island.
The Philippines is currently in the midst of an arbitration case against China at the Hague over the South China Sea. A ruling on the case is expected before May.
As part of its case, the Philippines argues that Taiping and other islands are just "rocks," a categorization which helps its broad claims in the area.
Taiwan disagrees, saying Taiping is a fully fledged island, a categorization which entitles it to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
After the tour, Ma insisted Wednesday it was not provocative.
"Filipino lawyers have provided wrong information misleading the world, so we feel we have to come out to rebuff their claims," he said.
"To see is to believe," Ma added.
"We hope journalists can see for themselves that Taiping is an island, not a rock."
Taiwan Wednesday formally invited the Hague arbitration panel and representatives from the Philippines to visit Taiping.
Beefing up presence
Philippine foreign ministry spokesman Charles Jose urged caution, calling on all sides "to refrain from taking actions that will further complicate the situation in the South China Sea."
China, which claims almost all of the sea, said it too would invite foreign journalists to visit the Spratlys "when the time is ripe," according to foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
"The Nansha islands (Spratlys) have always been China's territory. Chinese people on both sides of the strait have the responsibility to safeguard our heritage," she said.
As part of efforts to strengthen defense capabilities on Taiping, Taiwan last year inaugurated a solar-powered lighthouse, an expanded airstrip and a pier, all stops on Wednesday's press tour. The island is 0.51 square kilometres (0.19 square miles).
The trip aimed to highlight the island is self-sufficient, giving the press tours of a farm and a water well.
Journalists were shown other facilities including a hospital, post office, and temple, as well as visiting a monument engraved with the words "Taiping Island" during the 3-hour visit.
Most of the island's inhabitants work for the coastguard, which has about 160 staff there.
Rival claimants in the South China Sea have been beefing up their military presence in the disputed region, and other countries have complained China is becoming increasingly aggressive in pressing its case.