Outgoing Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is poised to visit the disputed island of Itu Aba in the South China Sea to convey Lunar New Year wishes to the islanders. His trip to the contested territory comes amid the ongoing high-voltage political drama between Taipei and Beijing. Itu Aba is the largest island in the Spratlys.
Ma's one-day trip was announced by Taiwan's presidential office, which said he would land on the Taiwanese-controlled territory in the archipelago on Thursday, 28 January. Presidential office spokesperson Charles Chen said the pro-China Ma would spend a few hours on the island and if the weather permits he would greet the soldiers as well.
Incoming president Tsai Ing-wen, who is expected to take over in May, has said she would not be sending a representative with Ma. Tsai, 59, who is widely seen as hawkish towards China, won the presidential elections recently and is on her way to becoming Taiwan's first female leader.
"The Taiping Island is an inherent part of the Republic of China's territory," said the presidential spokesperson mentioning the official name of the island used by Taipei. The island, which has its own airstrip and fresh water, recently got a $100m (£69.7m) upgrade to its port along with a new lighthouse. Ma is expected to hold a press conference following his island visit.
Responding to the developments, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesperson for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, told reporters in Beijing: "Safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as safeguarding the overall interests of the Chinese nation are the common responsibility and obligation of compatriots across the straits."
Both China and Taiwan claim most parts of the South China with overlapping claims from other countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. China also views Taiwan as its own sovereign region and has quite frequently reiterated its commitment to military intervention if Taipei attempts to claim independence.