Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s government on Tuesday sent a minister to Taiping for the first time in its latest move to assert its claim over the contested archipelago in the South China Sea.
The move comes a month after an international tribunal ruled that no land formations in the disputed waters, including Taiping, can be considered islands.
On Tuesday, Taiwan’s Interior Minister Yeh Jiunn-rong led a group of officials and scholars to the island to establish it as a climate change research base.
The visit signals Taiwan’s flat rejection of the ruling that the island is merely a rock unfit for human habitation.
“Minister Yeh boarded a transport plane along with land administration officials and climate as well as oceanology experts to Taiping Island this morning for a research project,” a ministry spokesman said.
Yeh was expected to return in the evening, the official said, adding that the project was conducted by the Ministry of Science and Technology to set up an observatory to study climate and ocean current changes in the South China Sea.
The official said that under the plan, Taiwan would also seek global cooperation over the issues and share climate change and relevant issues with the international community.
Asked if the visit was meant to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty claim, the official said the action itself said it all.
Tsai has come under fire from the opposition for bowing to American and Japanese pressure by not making high-profile protests against the international tribunal’s ruling.
Her government has also come under attack for failing to support a group of Taiwanese fishermen sending boats to Taiping to uphold Taiwan’s claim.
According to some opinion polls, her mild reaction to the ruling was one reason for the drop in her popularity in recent days.
Taiwanese news media said Tsai was likely to visit Taiping Island after Yeh, a speculation that neither the Presidential Office nor the interior ministry would comment on.
Meanwhile, US State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau declined to comment on Yeh’s visit. But she called on all South China Sea claimants to avoid stoking tensions in the region.