TAIPEI, Taiwan, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Taiwan's outgoing president touched off objections Thursday when he visited a disputed island in the South China Sea, the first time in his eight years as president.
But the United States has criticized the trip, calling it "extremely unhelpful."
Taiwan's Foreign Minister David Y. L. Lin said the visit was timely as the country prepared to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year.
"The Taiping outing is in keeping with the spirit of President Ma's South China Sea Peace Initiative, which upholds the longstanding principles of safeguarding sovereignty, shelving disputes, pursuing peace and...promoting joint exploration and development," Lin said Thursday.
Ma said in a separate statement that he had told Washington of his plans to visit the island that is also claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam. He also said Taiwan's goals do not differ from those of the United States.
"We all hope for peace, hope there is no conflict or war," Ma said.
There are 180 people residing on the island, most of them affiliated with Taiwan's coast guard.
Taiwan plans to further develop the island into what it called a "peaceful, eco-friendly and low-carbon island."
A lighthouse and a wharf were completed in 2015, and plans are underway to install solar energy panels and build a hospital.
"All this evidence fully demonstrates that Taiping Island is able to sustain human habitation and an economic life of its own. Taiping Island is categorically not a rock, but an island," Ma said.
During his term as president, Ma has worked toward improved relations with the mainland, but voters recently elected opposition party candidate Tsai Ing-wen, as public skepticism toward Taiwan's China relations has grown.
Beijing does not recognize Taiwan's sovereignty.