By J.R. Wu
TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan warned on Tuesday that “the threat of our enemies is growing day by day”, as Chinese warships led by the country’s sole aircraft carrier sailed towards the island province of Hainan through the South China Sea on a routine drill.
The drill comes amid renewed tension over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own, following U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s telephone call with the island’s president that upset Beijing.
“The threat of our enemies is growing day by day. We should always be maintaining our combat alertness,” Taiwan Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan said on Tuesday.
“We need to strengthen the training (of our soldiers) so that they can not only survive in battle but also destroy the enemy and accomplish the mission,” he said.
Feng’s remarks were given in a speech at a ministry event marking the promotion of senior military officers.
The Chinese warships rounded Taiwan, passing between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa and through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, said Taiwan’s defense ministry.
China has given few details of what the Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier is up to, save that it is on a routine exercise.
China’s air force conducted long-range drills this month above the East and South China Seas that rattled Japan and Taiwan. China said those exercises were also routine.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
The Pentagon did not directly comment on the latest drill but said that the United States recognizes lawful use of sea and airspace in accordance to international law.
“We continue to closely monitor developments in the region. We do not have specific comments on China’s recent naval activities, but we continue to observe a range of ongoing Chinese military activity in the region,” Pentagon spokesman Gary Ross told Reuters.
In Taipei, a Defense Ministry official said the Liaoning was maintaining a southwest course towards Hainan and not heading deeper into the disputed South China Sea near the Spratly Islands that lie close to the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
“It is still heading southwest towards Hainan,” a senior Taiwanese military official told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.
The official said the carrier had not sailed close to Itu Abu, referring to Taiwan’s only holding in the Spratly Islands, and that Taipei continues to monitor its movements.
The Liaoning has taken part in previous exercises, including in the South China Sea, but China is years away from perfecting carrier operations similar to those the United States has practised for decades.
Last December, the defense ministry confirmed China was building a second aircraft carrier but its launch date is unclear. The aircraft carrier program is a state secret.
Beijing could build multiple aircraft carriers over the next 15 years, the Pentagon said in a report last year.
(Reporting by J.R. Wu; Additional reporting by Tim Kelly in Tokyo; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)