Taiwan to stage live-fire drill on disputed islands

Posted at 08/12/12 7:53 PM

TAIPEI - Taiwanese coastguards said Sunday they will next month stage a live-fire exercise in disputed South China Sea islands with new, longer-range artillery and mortars, in a move that risks fresh tensions.

The potentially resource-rich sea, home to important trade routes, is an increasingly dangerous flashpoint and there have been a string of recent diplomatic rows between countries with overlapping territorial claims.

Taiwan's drill will take place on Taiping Island in the Spratlys, a sprawling group of islands claimed in whole or part by Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei, the coastguard said.

The coastguard said it would take place in September but did not give an exact date.

Vietnam already voiced anger after Taiwan last week moved new weaponry to the island in preparation for the drill, sparking a rebuke from Taipei.

"Taiping Island is one of the islands in the area that has long been governed by" Taiwan, the foreign ministry said in a statement. "Its sovereignty is indisputable."

The drill on the island, the biggest in the Spratlys, involves newly arrived 40mm artillery and 120mm mortars, the Taipei-based United Evening News said, which also reported that several lawmakers will watch the drill.

The range of the 120mm mortars is 6.1 kilometers (3.8 miles), compared with 4.1 kilometers (2.5 miles) for the mortars currently in use by Taiwanese coastguards on Taiping Island, the paper said.

All claimants except Brunei have troops based on the archipelago of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, which sprawl across a vast area but have a total land mass of less than five square kilometers (two square miles).

South China Sea tensions escalated last month when China announced a new city and military garrison in the disputed Paracel Islands, prompting Washington to voice concern.