Minister of National Defense Yen Ming (嚴明) yesterday traveled to Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島) aboard a C-130 military transport airplane for an inspection tour.
Itu Aba, controlled by Taiwan, is the largest of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) in the disputed South China Sea, where claimants include Vietnam, China and the Philippines.
Yen was accompanied by Coast Guard Administration Minister Wang Ginn-wang (王進旺), Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Chiu Chih-wei (邱志偉), People First Party Legislator Thomas Lee (李桐豪), Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Major General David Lo (羅紹和) and other officials.
It was Yen’s first visit to Itu Aba since he took office in August last year.
A government press release said the visit was meant to enhance Taiwan’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, and the nation is committed to bolstering the island’s defense capability and upgrading its military installations.
After arriving at about 11:50am, Yen and his entourage were briefed by the officers leading the garrison, comprised of about 100 coast guard troops, stationed on the remote military outpost.
The troops then carried out short training exercises and artillery drills, including operating the 40mm artillery guns and 120mm mortars that form part of the island’s defense installations.
In the early afternoon, the officials inspected the island’s port and other facilities to monitor the progress of an ongoing NT$3.3 billion (US$110 million) construction project that includes the expansion of port facilities to accommodate armed naval vessels of up to 3,000 tonnes and the reinforcement of an airstrip for military transport aircraft.
They also inspected the island’s meteorological observatory and its power station, which runs on solar energy.
The officials returned to Taiwan proper late in the afternoon and landed at an air force base on the outskirts of Pingtung.
The tour was made at the request of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, where legislators from across party lines agreed to strengthen the island’s defensive capability and increase the number of troops stationed there.
According to Chiu, who chairs the committee, Taiwan must enhance its military presence and upgrade its firepower on Itu Aba.
“We have seen lots of activity in the area by China and Vietnam in recent years, where they are undertaking major land reclamations and construction projects on the islets and reefs that they have occupied,” he said.
“Taiping Island is very far away from Taiwan, so we must be more proactive to build up our defenses there... If China or another country were to mount a surprise attack, it would be very difficult for our troops there to defend the island,” Chiu said.
Senior military brass are weighing various options to bolster the island’s military hardware, such as stationing one of the nation’s new 3,000-tonne coast guard cutters there to patrol the surrounding marine areas.
Legislators have called for the deployment of short-range anti-aircraft missiles on the island, and possibly installing US-made Sea Chaparral surface-to-air missiles.
Taiwan’s plan to conduct military drills on Itu Aba has drawn a sharp response from Vietnam, which calls it Ba Binh Island.
On Monday, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Taiwanese military activity on the island “threatens peace, stability, maritime security and safety, and further complicates the East Sea issue,” using the Vietnamese name for the South China Sea.
Vietnam said it firmly opposes the drills and demanded that Taiwan immediately put an end to the “illegitimate act and prevent similar occurrences.”
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