Taiwan's defence review highlights China military threat, conflict crisis potential in South China Sea

File photo of China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the South China Sea.
File photo of China's South Sea Fleet taking part in a drill in the South China Sea.PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (REUTERS) - China's accelerated military development and recent activity by its military aircraft and ships around Taiwan pose an increased threat to the self-ruled island, according to a Taiwanese government defence report draft reviewed by Reuters.

The 2017 Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) also highlights the uncertainty over the future strategic direction of the United States in the region, the impact of Japan flexing its military capabilities and "conflict crisis" potential in the disputed South China Sea.

The document is due to be presented to parliament on Thursday (March 16) by Taiwan's Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan.

"The recent activity of Chinese jets and ships around Taiwan shows the continued rise in (China's) military threat capabilities," highlighting the importance of Taiwan's need to defend itself, the review will say. "In addition to posing a military threat to our country, it also has a negative impact on regional stability."

The four-yearly review is the first since President Tsai Ing-wen took office last May and the first under the Democratic Progressive Party, which traditionally advocates independence for Taiwan.

"The country's military development and Taiwan's freedom and prosperity are the same living body," according to the draft.

The QDR comes as China - which claims Taiwan as a wayward province to be taken back by force if necessary - has been stepping up air and sea military exercises in waters surrounding Taiwan as part of a sweeping modernisation of its armed forces.

Taiwan's defence ministry had no comment on the report on Wednesday.

Developments in the South China Sea, including rejection of an international court ruling by other claimants on territorial rights of the Philippines in the disputed waters, China's land reclamation and militarisation, and freedom of navigation patrols championed by the United States could deepen strife in the area, the review will say.

"Sovereignty disputes in the region and strategic competition could intensify, leading to hidden conflict crisis."

China has begun new construction work on a disputed island in the South China Sea, satellite images show, just days ahead of the first official visit to the region by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The review also listed Japan's move away from its pacifist constitution "to strengthen its armaments and lift a ban on using troops abroad" as having deep and far-reaching impact on the security situation in the Asia-Pacific and the Taiwan Strait.

Reuters reported this week that Japan plans to send its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea beginning in May - its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War Two.

Among security challenges for Taiwan, the review also said "the United States' Asia-Pacific strategic direction and troop deployment was not clear" under the new administration of President Donald Trump.

Trump provoked consternation in Beijing by taking a congratulatory call from Taiwan's Tsai in January and then calling into question adherence to the "One China" policy, under which Washington acknowledges the Chinese position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it.

Last month, Trump agreed to honour the policy during a phone call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The United States remains Taiwan's biggest ally and arms supplier and is bound by legislation to provide the means to help the island defend itself.