Taiwan has started using unmanned surveillance aircraft to spy on mainland China to reduce the risk to its pilots from an increased deployment of mainland missiles.
The Taiwanese army in March commissioned a fleet of 32 drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), developed by the military-run Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology.
Initially the drones, based in the eastern county of Taitung, were watching airspace in the east and south but lately they had extended their range to the Taiwan Strait, the Liberty Times said today.
“Now they can effectively monitor China’s military movements in the southeastern coastal area,” an unnamed senior officer at the defence ministry was quoted as saying.
The paper said the operation has attracted interest from the United States, which has been using the sophisticated high-altitude Global Hawk drone to collect military intelligence on China.
The US raised the topic during a recent military exchange programme with Taiwan, it said.
Taiwan’s defence ministry declined to comment on the report.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait have eased since President Ma Ying-jeou’s mainland-friendly administration came to power in 2008 on a platform of strengthening trade and tourism links. He was re-elected in January 2012.
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But Beijing has still not ruled out the use of force against the island should it declare independence, even though the two sides have been ruled separately since their split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.
Late last year, a Taiwanese national defence report said the mainland’s arms build-up over the last two decades would give it the power to invade Taiwan by 2020 even if allies came to the island’s aid.
Aside from military might, the report said, China’s capacity for weapons research and manufacturing had greatly increased, “which has boosted its military deterrent and posed a grave threat to Taiwan”.
The United States is Taiwan’s main ally. In 1996, the US sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near the island after the People’s Liberation Army lobbed missiles into the sea to try to deter Taiwanese from voting for then-president Lee Teng-hui.
However, news of Taiwan's drone use comes on the back of a recent agreement between the US and China, amid Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Beijing, to be more open about their military activities after years of mistrust and wariness.
Both nations should "reduce troubles" and "seek common ground while accommodating their differences", Xi was quoted as saying by state-run CCTV.
One result of the talks is the call for a substantive defence dialogue and more risk-reduction measures. The two sides also agreed that Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies and the US Coast Guard should set up a working group to discuss rules of behaviour.