Taiwan starts annual live-firing drills after series of gaffes

Soldiers trying to rescue the four solders trapped in a CM-11 tank from a river in Pingtung County, east Taiwan on Aug 16, 2016.
Soldiers trying to rescue the four solders trapped in a CM-11 tank from a river in Pingtung County, east Taiwan on Aug 16, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwan on Monday (Aug 22) kicked off its largest annual live-firing military exercise - the first under new President Tsai Ing-wen - as the island's army struggles with its image following a series of accidents.

Codenamed "Han Kuang 32" (Han Glory), the drills lasting five days are designed to test how Taiwan's armed forces would repel an attack from China. Ms Tsai is expected to preside over parts of the drills as the military show off its latest weapons including locally developed drones and newly acquired attack helicopters.

But the first day of the drills - which included troops defending army bases and loading assault vehicles onto warships - got off on the wrong foot as a military truck swerved off a road and fell into farmland, according to the Defence Ministry.

One soldier sustained a head injury in the accident and was sent to hospital, it added in a statement.

It comes on the heels of a fatal accident last week when a tank plunged into a river, killing four soldiers.

The biggest military slip-up under Ms Tsai's administration was when a Taiwanese warship mistakenly launched a supersonic "aircraft carrier killer" missile towards China last month, hitting a fishing boat and killing one person, prompting a stern rebuke from Beijing.

The gaffe sparked an uproar in Taiwan, with questions asked about the military's competence.

Relations with China have grown increasingly frosty since Ms Tsai of the Democratic Progressive Party won the presidency in January. Beijing is highly suspicious of Ms Tsai because her party is traditionally pro-independence, and has warned her against any attempt at a breakaway.

Taiwan has been self-ruling since splitting with the mainland in 1949 following a civil war, but has never formally declared independence. Beijing still sees it as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

According to a Defence Ministry report last year, the People's Liberation Army has increased the number of ballistic and cruise missiles targeting the democratic island.

China launched missiles into waters off Taiwan in 1995 and 1996 in an attempt to deter voters in the island's first democratic presidential elections.