Foreign correspondents visited a Taiwan-controlled island in the South China Sea on Wednesday, marking the first time the government has taken international media to tour the island.
Led by Deputy Foreign Minister Bruce Linghu, the foreign correspondents visited the Taiping Island, or Itu Aba, the largest naturally formed island of the Spratly Archipelago.
Just before arriving at the idyllic island with its white sand beaches, the journalists, numbering around 20 including some local journalists, were able to observe from the air a wharf that was completed last year in part to beef up Taiwan's defense posture.
During their three-hour stay, they were taken to various sites, among them a water well, a temple and a Japanese stone marker erected during the prewar era when the island was under the jurisdiction of the Japanese governor-general of Taiwan.
They lunched on chicken, fish and sweet potato and other locally produced items and listened to explanations by specialists who stressed how humans have long been active on the 0.51-square-kilometer island, located some 1,600 kilometers south of Taiwan.
President Ma Ying-jeou, who created waves by visiting the island in January, met with the group at the airport immediately following their return to Taipei in the evening.
He said the main purpose of the tour was to allow them to see with their own eyes how Taiping can sustain human habitation and have an economic life of its own, thereby countering the Philippines' claim that the island is a rock, not an island, under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
"We are not trying to provoke any confrontation or cause any trouble," he said. "We just want to prove that it is an island. That's all."
After Ma's visit, the U.S. State Department had expressed disappointment with it, calling it "extremely unhelpful" on grounds that it could raise tensions in the South China Sea.
On Wednesday, Sonia Urbom, spokeswoman of the American Institute in Taiwan that serves as the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei in absence of diplomatic ties, reiterated in an e-mail to Kyodo News that Taiwan and all claimants should "lower tension, rather than taking actions that could raise them."
The Philippines is challenging China's blanket claim to most of the South China Sea at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which is expected to rule on the matter as early as May.
While Taiwan is not directly involved in that case, a ruling in favor of the Philippines would put it in an awkward position because China's claim is based on the same 1947 declaration as Taiwan's.
Besides arranging the media trip, Ma on Wednesday invited Philippine officials, their legal team and members of the tribunal panel to visit Taiping.
Ma is the second Taiwan president to visit the island.
In February 2008, then outgoing President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party went there and announced what he called the "Spratly Initiative," similar in many respects to Ma's "South China Sea Peace Initiative" announced in May last year.
During the January trip, Ma announced the road map to the initiative, proposing the establishment of a cooperation and development mechanism that contributes to peace and prosperity in the region and setting three stages for reaching the final goal.