Taiwan plans rescue drills in South China Sea end of November

The Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island, seen here in this undated handout on Sept 22, 2016.
The Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island, seen here in this undated handout on Sept 22, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (REUTERS) - Taiwan's coastguard has said it plans to hold rescue drills in waters around Taipei's sole territorial holding in the disputed South China Sea at the end of this month, and that the drills could involve its navy.

The exercises to be held around Itu Aba, known by Taiwan as Taiping, would include drills in rescuing shipwrecked personnel, the coastguard said. More details would be released later, it said in a statement on its website late on Sunday (Nov 20).

"Currently the navy regularly patrols near Taiping Island. We don't rule out the navy playing a supporting role in future humanitarian rescue drills being held near Taiping," the Coast Guard Administration said in the statement.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$7.1 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year.

Taiwan has largely kept out of disputes between China and its neighbours, but the planned drills would be the first since President Tsai Ing-wen took power in May.

In July, a judgment by an international court classified Itu Aba was a rock and not an island, thereby making it ineligible to own a greater economic zone of resources off its coast.

Taiwan's coastguard has had direct oversight of Itu Aba since 2000, when it took over from the Taiwanese military. More than 100 coastguard personnel are stationed on Itu Aba.

China distrusts Ms Tsai and her ruling independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but Beijing has previously maintained that Beijing and Taipei had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the waterway.

The United States, Taiwan's only major political ally, criticised former president Ma Ying-jeou for visiting Itu Aba earlier this year because it did not want tensions to escalate in the South China Sea.