At this juncture, when Taiwan is in the delicate transitional phase of transfer of power from the Kuomintang (KMT) to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan’s incumbent President, Ma Ying-jeou, whose term ends on 20 May 2016, suddenly announced on 27 January 2016, that he was visiting the Taiwan-held Taiping Island the following day. Accompanied by 20 members of his staff and law of sea experts, Ma Ying-jeou flew 1,600 km on 28 January to Taiping, also known as Itu Aba, island ostensibly to “wish Republic of China personnel on Taiping island a Happy Year of the Monkey”! The DPP declined to join. The move, laden with political overtones, adds to the tensions in the South China Sea and predictably attracted criticism.

After China’s land reclamation work on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, the Taiping (Itu Aba) Island is now the fourth largest island in the Spratlys and supports around 180 people, of whom about 150 are coastguard personnel, who have secured the 46-hectare (114-acre) island since 2000. Taiwan has just completed a US$100 million port upgrade and built a new lighthouse on the island, which has its own airstrip, a hospital and fresh water.

Ma Ying-jeou’s announcement of the trip coincided with the arrival of US Secretary of State John Kerry in Beijing on 27 January. Interestingly, at the press conference addressed by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State John Kerry, immediately following their talks in Beijing on 27 January 2016, Wang Yi outlined China’s position on the Taiwan and South China Sea issues in 397 words. He stressed “that the South China Sea Islands have historically been China’s territory. China has a right to protect its own territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests. At the same time, China is committed to upholding peace and stability in the South China Sea.” In his reply to a question by a Xinhua reporter, Wang Yi additionally justified China’s right to construct facilities on islands in the South China Sea. John Kerry, in his 213-word remarks, reaffirmed the “three communiqués” and US commitment to a “one-China” policy, but seemed to underplay the tensions centring on the disputes in the South China Sea. He said he had a “constructive exchange” with Wang Yi on the “concerns that exist about tensions between China and many neighbours over the South China Sea and the East China Seas”, but emphasised that “the United States does not take sides on the sovereignty questions underlying the territorial disputes.” He also “stressed the importance of finding common ground among the claimants and avoiding a destabilising cycle of mistrust or escalation”. The US government, which days earlier had complimented Ma Ying-jeou for his positive contribution to the improvement of Taiwan-Mainland relations, now expressed its “disappointment” at the travel plan and criticised it as an action that “is extremely unhelpful and (that) does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes”. Separately, Sonia Urbom, spokesperson of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT)—the de facto US embassy in Taipei—told Reuters news agency via email “We are disappointed that President Ma Ying-jeou plans to travel to Taiping Island. Such an action is extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.”

There was domestic criticism too, with the DPP accusing Ma Ying-jeou of not behaving as a “caretaker” President should. There was, predictably, a quick response from China on 28 January, with the official Global Times and China Daily both quoting the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Ma Xiaoguang asserting that “China has indisputable sovereignty rights over some of the islands in the South China Sea and people cross-Straits share a common responsibility and obligation to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

With this visit to an offshore contested Taiwanese outpost, Ma Ying-jeou might have tried to shore his nationalist credentials. In the press statement issued on 28 January evening after his visit to Taiping Island, Ma Ying-jeou outlined the South China Sea Peace Initiative Roadmap enunciated by him earlier and which mentions cooperation and development of the islands in the South China Sea. The press statement additionally contests the stand taken by the Philippines at international arbitration and asserts that Taiping Island is a freshwater island, with over 106 species of vegetation, and which has existed for almost three million years. It reasserts Taiwan’s claim over the islands and waters of the South China Sea.

Ma Ying-jeou had earlier come under fire domestically, and probably lost votes too, for meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore on 5 November 2015. That meeting materialised just weeks before Taiwan’s presidential elections. DPP’s President-designate Tsai Ing-wen, however, exhibited shrewd judgement in declining to join President Ma Ying-jeou on the visit. She has thus kept a veil on her policy on China without prejudicing Beijing and at the same time avoided ruffling feathers in Washington, which was uncomfortable with the previous DPP government’s assertive “pro-independence” policy. Such judgement will help Tsai Ing-wen keep her options open while facilitating implementation of her policy of actively reaching out to India and countries in South East Asia.

Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy