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President Ma Ying-jeou visits Taiwan’s largest island holding in South China Sea

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President Ma Ying-jeou is visiting Taiwan’s largest island holding in the South China Sea, defying criticism from his country’s biggest ally, the United States.

Ma departed the capital Taipei early today aboard an air force C-130 cargo plane bound for Taiping Island, also known as Itu Aba.

Taiping is the largest naturally occurring island in the highly disputed Spratly island group, an area where Taiwan shares overlapping claims with China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

However, the island has been eclipsed in size by China’s ongoing program of creating man-made islands out of reefs and shoals.

Taiwan stations about 200 coast guard personnel, scientists and medical workers on the island.

The US State Department said yesterday the visit could exacerbate tensions in the strategically vital region.

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