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Taiwan Officials Make Low-Profile Visit to Disputed South China Sea

FILE - This photo released by the Military Information Agency in Taiwan shows two Taiwanese warships docking near the shore of Taiping Island, the largest of the disputed Spratly Island chain, with the Taiping military base in the foreground.

Two Taiwan government officials visited an islet in the heavily disputed South China Sea on Saturday to kick off operations at a lighthouse. The trip is likely to irritate rival maritime claimants China and Vietnam but not touch off a major dispute.

Taiwan’s ministers of the interior and coast guard head flew to Taiping Island and back with a group of scholars. They attended a ceremony to start up a lighthouse that can guide ships up to 20 kilometers away.

Taiwan controls Taiping, the biggest islet in the disputed waters. The diplomatically isolated government wants its peers to respect Taiwan’s maritime claims but without causing upsets.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has not ruled out a visit but was not a part of Saturday’s trip.

Raymond Wu, managing director of the political risk consultancy e-telligence in Taipei, said a presidential visit would have raised tough questions for the leader, who advocated in May that rival maritime claimants seek peace after four decades of bickering and occasional skirmishes.

"It's likely to receive a lot of public scrutiny domestically, and also there could potentially be reaction by other countries if Ma had gone," Wu said. "At this particular point, Taiwan wants to demonstrate it's a productive member of the region."

Brunei, China, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines also claim all or part of the South China Sea. China and Vietnam have been particularly aggressive in fortifying the approximately 500 islets in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. China has angered other nations this year by landfilling its claims to expand its influence.

Other claimants would protest if Ma had visited the islet Saturday. They were expected to notice the trip by the pair of officials but withhold hostile comment.

The huge sea is rich in fisheries, commercial shipping lanes and possibly fossil fuel reserves. Taiwan holds Taiping and one other islet in the Spratly archipelago, which is surrounded by the bigger holdings of China, Malaysia and Vietnam. Ma's peace plan advocates that the rival governments set aside sovereignty disputes and work jointly on resource exploration.

Other governments dwarf Taiwan in terms of land claimed or diplomatic clout, so Taiwan has built up Taiping Island partly as an olive branch for the region.

The government runs a pier and an airstrip on the tropical islet that's 1,400 meters long and 400 wide. It also operates a clinic for the crews of storm-battered ships from any country and has installed $1.29 million worth of solar panels since 2011 to showcase Taiping as a low-carbon island.