Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s government sent a minister to Taiping Island for the first time on Tuesday in a push to assert its claim over the contested South China Sea feature.
The trip by Interior Minister Yeh Jiunn-rong and a group of officials and researchers comes a month after an international tribunal ruled that no land formations in the disputed waters, including Taiping, could be considered islands. The visit signals Taiwan’s rejection of the ruling that the island is merely a rock unfit for human habitation.
Taiwan said the trip was part of a Ministry of Science and Technology project to establish Taiping as a research base with an observatory to study climate change and ocean currents.
“Minister Yeh boarded a transport plane along with land administration officials and climate and ocean experts to Taiping Island … for a research project,” a ministry spokesman said.
Yeh was expected to return in the evening, the official said. Asked if the visit was meant to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty claim, the official said the action itself said it all.
Cabinet spokesman Tung Chen-yuan said Yeh and his group would survey conditions on Taiping to pave the way for the observatory in line with Tsai’s instructions at a national security meeting last month.
Responding to reports that Yeh’s trip was a prelude for one by Tsai, Tung said Taiping was controlled by Taiwan and “future visits by the president are not ruled out”.
“But currently there are no such plans,” he said.
Tsai has come under fire from the opposition for bowing to US and Japanese pressure in not making high-profile protests against the tribunal’s ruling.
Her government has also been criticised for not backing a group of Taiwanese fishermen sailing to Taiping to uphold Taiwan’s claim.
Some analysts have attributed Tsai’s drop in popularity to her moderate response to the ruling.
The Tsai government hopes to use Yeh’s visit to stop the fall in Tsai’s popularity, but it is already too late
Wang Yu-min, KMT deputy whip
“The Tsai government hopes to use Yeh’s visit to stop the fall in Tsai’s popularity, but it is already too late because the public now knows that she is inept in terms of defending our sovereignty and fishermen’s rights,” Wang Yu-min, deputy whip of the opposition Kuomintang caucus in the legislature, said.
Former president Ma Yingjeou, of the KMT, visited Taiping in late January to back Taiwan’s claim and arranged for foreign journalists to go the islet in March when he was still in office.
Since stepping down, Ma has said a visit by Tsai would add political weight to the Taiwanese claims.
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.