TAIPEI, Jan 28, 2016:

Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou flew to a disputed island in the South China Sea on Thursday despite criticism from the United States and protests from the other claimants as tensions swirl in the region.

Taipei insists Taiping Island in the Spratlys is part of its territory, but the chain is also claimed in part or whole by Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

In a speech to personnel stationed on Taiping, Ma said the islands were “an inherent part of the Republic of China”, using Taiwan’s official title.

“This is indisputable.”

His trip comes as several other claimants have been beefing up their military presence in the disputed region.

Beijing regards almost the whole of the South China Sea as its territory and other claimants have complained it is become increasingly aggressive in pressing its claim.

Ma, however, adopted a more conciliatory tone, calling for the setting aside of disputes and proposed joint exploration of natural resources the area is believed to harbour.

“To resolve disputes in the South China Sea, the ROC government will work to safeguard sovereignty, shelve disputes, pursue peace and reciprocity, and promote joint development,” he said.

Washington, which has said it does not want to see an escalation of tensions in the region, said on Wednesday that Ma’s trip was “extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.”

Vietnam also protested on Thursday.

“We resolutely oppose President Ma’s action of going to Itu Aba,” Tran Duy Hai, representative of the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, told AFP, using an alternative name for the island.

“The situation is already very tense. Each country shouldn’t take any unilateral action. His action doesn’t contribute to stability in the region.”

The Philippines also warned Taiwan not to increase tensions in the disputed waters.

“We remind all parties concerned of our shared responsibility to refrain from actions that can increase tension in the South China Sea,” foreign ministry spokesman Charles Jose said.

China, which also regards Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification, gave a measured response to Ma’s trip.

“The Nansha (Spratly) islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. The Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait all have the responsibility to safeguard the ancestral property of the Chinese nation,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.

Ma was due to visit a hospital, farm and solar-power facilities on Taiping, according to an earlier statement from the presidential office.

He was also going to send a letter to Taipei via the local postal service and hand out small gifts ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday before returning to Taipei later Thursday.

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