Three Taiwanese legislators flew to a hotly-contested island in the South China Sea Tuesday as garrison forces there held a live-fire drill, officials said, risking stirring up new tensions in the area.
The lawmakers left an airbase in the south of Taiwan at around 7:00 a.m. local time on board a C-130 transport plane, arriving at Taiping, the biggest islet in the Spratlys, three-and-a-half hours later.
“The group observed a live-fire drill conducted by the coast guards,” Hsieh Chin-chin, a coast guard spokesman, told AFP.
Two of the lawmakers were from the ruling Kuomintang party, and the third from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.
The Spratlys are a group of islands claimed entirely or in part by Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.
They are believed to lie on top of major energy resources and sit near a number of important trading routes.
The Spratlys, and the South China Sea as a whole, have been at the center of a series of escalating diplomatic rows between countries with overlapping territorial claims.
In July Taiwan boosted its artillery and mortar weapons on Taiping, and last week its security chief and the interior minister visited the islet, in moves that angered Vietnam.
Despite warnings by other claimants, some right-wing Taiwanese politicians have been pressing the government to reinforce the garrison, urging it to replace the existing coast guard detachment with an elite marine unit.
All claimants except Brunei have troops or coast guards posted on the group of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, which are spread across a vast area but have a total land mass of less than five square kilometers (two square miles).
South China Sea tensions rose in July when China announced a new city and military garrison in the disputed Paracel Islands, prompting Washington to voice concern.