Taiwan leader 'to visit disputed Spratlys islands'

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou plans to visit the Spratly islands in the South China Sea to stress Taipei's claim to the disputed territory, a report said Saturday. Ma will go to Taiping Islet, the biggest of the grouping, as early as next week to promote it as an environmental-friendly place and promote Taiwan's claim "in a soft way," said the Liberty Times, citing unnamed sources. The trip is likely to draw "heightened attention" from neighbouring countries such as Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam that claim all or part of the potentially oil-rich Spratlys, the report said. All claimants except Brunei have troops based on the archipelago of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, which have a total land mass of less than five square kilometres (two square miles). Ma's predecessor Chen Shui-bian was the first Taiwanese leader to visit Taiping islet in February 2008 in a move protested by Vietnam and the Philippines. Taiwan's navy in July took a group of academics to the disputed islands, despite a flare-up of regional tensions over rival claims for the contested waters. Tensions in the decades-old dispute escalated this year amid accusations from the Philippines and Vietnam that China was becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claims. A spokesman for Ma said the president had "no current plans" to visit the islet.

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