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Taiwanese forces will hold live-fire drills on the Dongsha Islands in the coming weeks. Photo: CNA

Taiwan to stage live-fire drills as fears of possible PLA attack grow

  • Exercises will take place on Dongsha Islands in South China Sea on April 25 and May 5, Taiwan’s coastguard says
  • Announcement comes after People’s Liberation Army reported to have used drones to gather intelligence about Dongshas
Taiwan is planning to stage live-fire drills on the Dongsha Islands in the South China Sea later this month in preparation for a possible attack by mainland Chinese forces, amid reports the PLA has sent drones to gather intelligence about the Taipei-controlled islets.
Observers say the drills, along with a recent threat by Taiwan’s coastguard to shoot down any People’s Liberation Army drones sighted over Dongsha, are likely to increase tensions in the region.

Taiwan’s coastguard said the anti-landing drills would involve the use of shoulder-launched Kestrel rockets.

“There will be two live-fire practices, one on April 25 and the other on May 5, and we have already sent notices to relevant agencies, asking them to alert fishermen and aircraft to stay out of the firing zones,” an official from the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration said on Friday.

The drills would run from 8am to 9pm on both days in an area with a radius of eight nautical miles and a height of up to 12,000 feet, he said.

The Dongsha Islands, also known as the Pratas Islands, lie 450km (280 miles) southwest of the Taiwanese port city of Kaohsiung.

A military source, who asked not to be named, said troops from the Marine Corps’ 99th brigade would join coastguard officers stationed on the islands in the exercise.

“In addition to testing existing weapons like 120mm [five-inch] mortars, 40mm guns and 20mm cannons, the stationed forces on Dongsha will also test-fire the Kestrel rockets used for repelling amphibious landing craft and any assault by sea,” the person said.

The rockets have a range of 400 metres (1,300 feet) and can be fitted with warheads capable of piercing the 500mm-thick surface of a tank or a 30cm-thick concrete wall.

In its latest budget report, the Ocean Affairs Council, which oversees the Coast Guard Administration, requested funds for a further 164 Kestrels for deployment at Dongsha and 128 at Taiping, another Taiwan-controlled islet in the disputed South China Sea.

At a budget review meeting on Wednesday, Lee Chung-wei, who heads the council, told Taiwanese legislators that Kestrels were used mostly for anti-armour and anti-landing, and were not designed to shoot down aircraft unless they were flying at a low level.

When asked how the coastguard would react if PLA drones approached the islets, Lee said: “If the drones entered our airspace, we would deal with them according to the rules. If we needed to open fire, we would open fire.”

There has been speculation the PLA might try to capture the Dongsha Islands as tensions have grown between Taipei and Beijing. Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and over the past year has sent warplanes into the island’s southwest air defence identification zone on an almost daily basis and staged war games nearby.

Beijing is also upset at the growing closeness between Taipei and Washington, including their signing of a coastguard cooperation agreement.

Lo Chih-cheng, a legislator from the island’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said the agreement was helpful to Taiwan’s defence.

“With the agreement, Taiwan and the US coastguards will be able to have more room to exchange intelligence over what is happening in the South China Sea,” he said, adding the two sides could also cooperate in other areas to counter the PLA’s “grey zone” warfare, which includes sending civilian vessels and coastguard ships to harass others.

Taiwan can also deploy military drones on Dongsha Islands to boost the stationed forces’ surveillance capabilities, he said.

Wang Kung-yi, head of the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society, a Taipei-based think tank, said the situation in the region was becoming increasingly tense.

“With both Washington and Beijing sending aircraft carrier groups to waters near Taiwan and the South China Sea the situation has become highly tense, and for Lee to threaten to shoot down the PLA drones serves only to escalate tensions in the region,” he said.