PENGJIA ISLET, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou visited a small island in the East China Sea on Saturday to reassert Taiwan's sovereignty and its role in the contested region, one of the key issues of his tenure, which ends next month.
Ma's visit to Pengjia, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of Taiwan proper, was his administration's second propaganda trip to an island in three weeks. It came four years after Ma last visited Pengjia to propose a plan to address territorial disputes among China, Taiwan and Japan over the nearby chain known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyutai in Chinese.
Pengjia, considered the northernmost part of Taiwan's territory, is not contested and is home to about 40 residents, a weather station and coast guard facilities. It lies some 75 miles (120 kilometers) west of the Japanese-controlled Senkakus, which are hotly disputed by China, in particular. Taiwan also claims the islands, although its conflict with Japan has been considerably less heated, with the two sides reaching fishing agreements in 2013.
After arriving by helicopter Saturday, Ma unveiled a monument to maritime peace at a ceremony and commemorated the fishing deal he had signed with Japan.
Political observers in Taiwan said the island visit represents a symbolic stroke before Ma steps down from the presidency on May 20, when Tsai Ing-wen will be sworn in as Taiwan's new leader.
"Ma Ying-jeou wanted to (maintain) his legacy over these issues," said Kaocheng Wang, dean of the College of International Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei. "I think he personally thought that is a successful policy to both claim our sovereignty, to safeguard our sovereignty and also to boost his popularity."
During his eight years as president, Ma has sought to carve out Taiwan's position as a mediator in the region's numerous territorial disputes while asserting its own claims, even though it has been locked in a decades-long standoff with Beijing and lacks formal recognition from most of the world's nations.
In January, Ma flew to Taiping Island in the South China Sea's intensely contested Spratly group to demonstrate that Taiping is a self-supporting island entitled to an exclusive economic zone rather than a "rock," as the Philippines claims in an international lawsuit.
Washington, a crucial ally, called that trip "extremely unhelpful" to efforts to maintain stability in a region widely considered a potential military flashpoint.
In March, Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister Bruce Linghu led two dozen journalists on another trip to Taiping.
While Taiping is the largest naturally occurring island in the Spratlys, it has been dwarfed by man-made features created by China by piling sand atop coral reefs and topping them with lighthouses, airstrips, harbors and other infrastructure.
Associated Press writer Gerry Shih in Beijing contributed to this report.