Last month Taiwan conducted its largest military exercise in the South China Sea since 2000, according to a ruling party legislator.
According to multiple news reports, Lin Yu-fang of the Kuomintang (KMT) party told a legislative committee that on April 10 naval and marine troops had simulated retaking Taiping Island, a Taiwan-administered island in the South China Sea.
“This was the biggest naval gathering near the islet since 2000 when the marines were replaced by coastguards,” Lin said, according to AFP. Citing a statement Lin put out, AFP also said that “a naval fleet of seven Lafayette-class and Perry-class frigates as well as tank landing ships were mobilized for the drill which practiced retaking the islet after it was seized by invading troops.”
The task force involved in the exercise included two marine companies who stormed the island using more than 20 amphibious assault vehicles. The marines were armed with mortars and anti-tank rockets.
“The scene was pretty spectacular. The marines successfully landed on the beach and cleaned out the remainder of the enemy on the island. Coast Guard Administration officers also joined the exercise,” Lin said during a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee late last month, Taiwan media outlets reported.
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has confirmed that the exercise took place but has refused to release a video of the exercise, which Lin had requested of it. Lin said at last month’s meeting that he had been among a group of lawmakers invited to watch the drill take place in real time at the Navy’s headquarters in Taipei.
Taiping is part of the Spratlys chain of islands that are claimed in whole or part by Taiwan, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. At almost 0.5 square kilometers, it is the largest of the more 100 islets and reefs that make up the Spratlys. It is also the only Spratly Island with fresh water. It is strategically located about 800 km from the Scarborough Shoal, less than 600 km from Vietnam’s coast and 500 km from the Philippine island of Palawan.
Taiwanese marines had been stationed on Taiping Island until being withdrawn in 1999. Since then, Taiwan has guarded its claim of sovereignty over Taiping Island by stationing 130 Coast Guard Administration (CGA) personnel rather than regular troops. In fact, according to Lin, the drill last month was the first time that regular troops had been on Taiping Island since the military drill in 2000.
The decision to hold a drill simulating retaking the islands was likely driven by concern over the growing tensions in the South China Sea as of late. Indeed, as IHS Jane’s, a defense consultancy company, points out, Taiwan has been reinforcing its ability to protect the island in the recent years.
“The CGA force received additional weapons systems in August 2012 in the form of eight sets of 40 mm anti-aircraft guns, an unspecified number of 120 mm mortars, and AT4 shoulder-launched light anti-tank weapons,” IHS Jane’s reported.
As The Diplomat reported previously, last year Taiwan announced that it is building a new wharf on the island. According to Jane’s, when completed that wharf will be capable of handling 2,000-ton frigates. The current wharf can only accommodate very small vessels.
Taiwan also built a 1,150 meter runway on the island back in 2008. It is only one of two runways in the area, and can accommodate fairly large aircraft like the Hercules C-130. Taipei is believed to be considering extending the runway by another 300-500 meters. This would allow Taiwan to land some of the P-3C Orion patrol aircraft it has acquired from the United States.