Three Taiwanese legislators flew to a hotly-contested island in the South China Sea on Tuesday as garrison forces there held a live-fire drill, they said, risking stirring up new tensions in the area.
The lawmakers left an airbase in the south of Taiwan at around 7am on Tuesday on board a C-130 transport plane, arriving at Taiping, the biggest islet in the Spratlys, three-and-a-half hours later.
Immediately following the whirlwind visit, two of the lawmakers, from the ruling Kuomintang party, displayed video footage showing them and the third visitor, from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, watching a live-fire exercise by Taiwanese coastguards on the islet.
“We were very much impressed by their combat capabilities,” Lin Yu-fang, a legislator of the ruling Kuomintang party who sits on parliament’s defence committee, told reporters.
“Although they are coastguards, they definitely match their marine counterparts in terms of their combat capabilities. We have faith in them.”
The Spratlys – a group of islands claimed entirely or in part by Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei – are believed to lie on top of major energy resources and sit near a number of important trading routes.
The Spratlys, and the South China Sea as a whole, have been at the centre of a series of escalating diplomatic rows between countries with overlapping territorial claims.
The second Kuomintang legislator Chen Chen-hsiang, formerly the army commander, said Vietnam has emerged as the biggest threat to the Taiwanese garrison forces on Taiping.
“When we for the first time sent troops to the islet in the 1930s, the threat was small, but now the threat has become increasingly bigger,” Chen said of Vietnam’s continued reinforcement of troops in the area.
In the eight months to August, Vietnamese vessels had sailed in waters near Taiping 68 times, while no ships from China or the Philippines has done so.
In the face of the perceived threat, Lin called on the authorities to extend the 1,150-metre runway on the islet to at least 1,500 metres.
In July, Taiwan boosted its artillery and mortars on Taiping, and last week its security chief and the interior minister visited the islet, in moves that angered Vietnam.
Despite warnings by other claimants, some right-wing Taiwanese politicians have been pressing the government to reinforce the garrison, urging it to replace the existing coastguard detachment with an elite marine unit.
All claimants except Brunei have troops or coastguards posted on the group of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, which are spread across a vast area but have a total land mass of less than five square kilometres.
South China Sea tensions rose in July when Beijing announced a new city and military garrison in the disputed Paracel Islands, prompting Washington to voice concern.