TAIPEI - A group of Taiwanese academics has visited the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, defense officials said Monday, amid continued tensions over rival claims to the area.
A 12-member delegation from the Institute of Ocean Technology and Marine Affairs at National Cheng Kung University completed the week-long trip on Sunday, the defense ministry said in a statement.
Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, China, Malaysia, and the Philippines claim all or part of the Spratlys, which it is thought may be lying on top of large oil reserves.
"The group was able to use the fact-finding mission to collect first-hand information on issues such as transportation to and from the area, maintaining national security, and protecting the South China Sea's ecosystem," the defense ministry said.
"The visit inspired their patriotism and also renewed our territorial claim."
The move came as local media said Taiwanese authorities were considering extending the runway on Taiping Island, the largest in the disputed waters and some 860 miles (1,376 kilometers) from Taiwan.
Tensions in the South China Sea have risen recently, with China and the Philippines locked in a maritime dispute over the Scarborough Shoal, a reef off the Philippine coast.
Calls for an increase in Taiwan's defense capability in the Spratlys have been on the rise, with rival claimants deploying more troops and adding military facilities in the area.
In May, Taiwanese coastguards said the number of intruding Vietnamese boats last year surged to 106, up from 42 the year before.
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 kilometers (two square miles).