Taiwan's beacon on Spratlys may stoke tensions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2012, 12:00am


Taiwan will soon build a tactical air navigation system on one of the Spratly Islands, in a move that could reignite tensions in the South China Sea.

The flight-guiding system will be built on the runway on Taiping Islet, the largest of the Spratlys archipelago, a military spokesman said yesterday.

'The building of the system is solely to help increase the safety of landing and take-off by transport planes, and has nothing to do with any weapon,' said Luo Shou-he, defence ministry spokesman.

He dismissed news reports speculating that the building of the facility was part of a plan for co-operation between Taiwan and the US on military surveillance to gather intelligence about movements by the PLA and the forces of the Philippines, Vietnam and other claimants to South China Sea territory.

The potentially oil-rich archipelago, made up of more than 750 tiny islets, is claimed in part or wholly by Taiwan, mainland China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Taiwan, which holds Taiping Islet, has maintained a 1,200-metre airstrip built in 2006.

Ministry officials said the system, centred around a seven-metre-high beacon, will send off signals for transport planes, mainly Hercules C-130s, approaching the airstrip. They said the facility was highly necessary, as currently pilots had to make visual contact for landing and flights had to be aborted on misty days.

The officials said a building contract had already been awarded and construction would start this month, with official operation expected to start in September.

Tensions have been on the rise since March last year, with the PLA and Vietnam and Philippine forces staging drills around the waters to demonstrate their claims over the territory.

Since June, Beijing has several times called for co-operation with Taipei to deal jointly with the issue, only to be rebuffed by Taipei.

Taiwan used to deploy troops on Taiping, but later replaced them with coastguards in an attempt to reduce the tension.

To avoid being sidelined in the issue and to increase its visibility, Taiwan, which has repeatedly stressed its claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea, sent a group of academics to Taiping aboard a naval vessel in July to conduct academic research.

In September, Taiwan also sent a group of officials to Taiping to install a solar panel system to renew the electricity generation system there.

Taiwan's military also agreed in September to help the coastguard beef up its security on Taiping by replacing its obsolete defensive deployments with better ones.