Taiwan defence minister Yen Ming visits disputed Spratlys, first such trip in 5 years

Taiwan's Defense Minister Yen Ming (right) stands next to a honor guard during a ceremony to honor the dead soldiers of Taiwan killed in Myanmar during World War II, at the Martyr's Shrine in Taipei on Aug 27, 2014. Taiwan's defence minister vis
Taiwan's Defense Minister Yen Ming (right) stands next to a honor guard during a ceremony to honor the dead soldiers of Taiwan killed in Myanmar during World War II, at the Martyr's Shrine in Taipei on Aug 27, 2014. Taiwan's defence minister visited a disputed island in the South China Sea Wednesday, the first such trip by a Taiwanese military chief for more than five years, amid growing tensions in the region. -- PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan's defence minister visited a disputed island in the South China Sea Wednesday, the first such trip by a Taiwanese military chief for more than five years, amid growing tensions in the region.

Yen Ming, together with two legislators and several reporters, flew to Taiping, a Taiwan-administered island which is part of the Spratlys - a chain also claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.

The defence ministry confirmed the visit but declined to provide details.

It was the first by a Taiwanese defence minister since January 2009 when then-defence minister Chen Chao-min flew to the island more than 800 nautical miles (1,482 km) from Taiwan.

Yen inspected the coastguards guarding the island and called for peace, saying it was not Taiwan's desire to spark tensions there, the state Central News Agency reported.

The visit comes amid reports that China has been reclaiming more land atop five reefs in the region.

Noting that the reefs are only dozens of miles away from Taiping, Taiwan parliamentarian Lin Yu-fang said last week it would take only minutes for Chinese helicopters to fly from them to Taiping.

"This would pose grave threats to the defence of the garrisons on Taiping," Lin said.

Lin said it was time to review the defences on the island, highlighting what he called the continued military build-ups by Vietnam and the Philippines.

A six-point measure proposed by Lin was approved last week by parliament's diplomacy and defence committee, of which he is a member.

Among other points, the committee called for studies of the possible deployment of air defence missiles and the permanent stationing of warships in the Spratlys.

Taiwan in April conducted its largest military exercise since 2000 near the Spratlys. The scenario involved the retaking of Taiping after it had been seized by invading troops.

Taiping is currently guarded by a 130-strong coastguard detachment.

All claimants to the Spratlys, apart from Brunei and Taiwan, have troops based on the archipelago of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls.

They cover a vast area but have a total land mass of less than 5 square kilometres.