Taiwan will stage a three-day live-fire drill next month on Taiping Island in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to underscore its claimed sovereignty over the Spratly Islands – a move certain to again enrage rival claimant Vietnam.

The drill, expected to be held between 8am and 9pm from November 21 to 23, is expected to hearten Beijing, which has long voiced its claims over the Spratlys, despite disputes with other claimants and invention from the United States.

Beijing is usually angered by Taiwan holding war games to show its defence strength in the face of persistent military threats from the mainland. Taiwan is considered by Beijing to be a wayward province to be unified with the mainland by force if necessary.

However, next month’s drill is over the South China Sea, where both Taipei and Beijing have maritime claims opposing Vietnam over the Spratly Islands.

The drill will involve firing into the sea and air in the area around Taiping Island – known internationally as Itu Aba – using 40mm grenade machine guns and other weapons, officials of Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration said on Tuesday.

“It is a routine shooting practice, which we have held for years,” Tsai Tzung-hsien, head of the public relations department of the coastguard, told the South China Morning Post.

The exercise, to be held in areas within 5 nautical miles of Taiping, was aimed at safeguarding the integrity of Taiwan’s territory and strengthening the island’s defence capability, Tsai said, adding that the drill would not endanger the passage of foreign vessels or safety of countries close to Taiping, which had been notified – including Vietnam.

Fishing and other vessels, as well as aircraft, were advised not to operate near the area during the three days of the drill.

The South China Sea disputes involve island and maritime claims by Brunei, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. With an estimated US$5 trillion worth of global trade passing through the South China Sea annually, many non-claimant states including the US and Australia want it to remain international waters and have launched “freedom of navigation” operations.

Vietnam has previously accused Taiwan of trying to upset stability in the region by staging live-fire drills in the disputed Spratly chain. Calling the Taiwanese drills a serious violation of its sovereignty and a threat to maritime security, it has warned it could send forces to take Taiping within two hours.

With an area of 0.51 sq km, Taiping is the largest naturally formed island in the Spratly group, and can sustain human habitation and economic activity.

Asked what sorts of weapons would be used, Tsai said: “We will test the responsiveness of both our light and heavy weapons as well as our personnel.”

By Lawrence Chung - The South China Morning Post - October 23, 2018