By J.R. Wu
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou will visit the Taiwanese-held island of Itu Aba in the disputed South China Sea on Thursday (local time).
Ma's office said the president, who steps down in May, wanted to offer Chinese New Year wishes to residents on Itu Aba, mainly Taiwanese coastguard personnel and environmental scholars.
Itu Aba lies in the Spratly archipelago, where China's rapid construction of seven man-made islands has drawn alarm across parts of Asia and been heavily criticised by Washington.
Taiwan has just finished a US$100 million port upgrade and built a new lighthouse on Itu Aba, which has its own airstrip, a hospital and fresh water.
Ma's visit follows elections won by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Both Taiwan and China claim most of the South China Sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims.
Asked to comment on Ma's planned visit, the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated that China and Taiwan had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the waterway, through which US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
"Safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as safeguarding the overall interests of the Chinese nation is the common responsibility and obligation of compatriots across the straits," spokesman Ma Xiaoguang told reporters in Beijing.
The claims of both China and Taiwan are based on maps from the late 1940s belonging to the Nationalists, when they ruled all of China. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated in a civil war with China's Communists.
Itu Aba was now the fourth largest island in the Spratlys after China's land reclamation work on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, Taiwan's coastguard said in October.
The island supports around 180 people, about 150 of them coastguard personnel who have had oversight of the 46-hectare island since 2000.