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Taiwan's annual war games see first live-fire drill in 5 years
Publication Date : 18-04-2013
Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou watched the first live-fire drill in five years of the island's largest annual war games amid concerns in the United States that Taiwan is neglecting its military while developing closer ties with China.
"Taiwan may have enjoyed many years of peace but we cannot let down our guard," Ma said after watching F-16A/B, IDF and F-5E fighter jets, the locally developed Thunderbolt-2000 multi-rocket launcher system and a Cheng Kung-class frigate stage an hour-long show of force shortly after dawn yesterday.
However, the Cheng Kung frigate suffered a glitch which caused its gun to be slow to fire. The Jin Jiang-class patrol vessel failed to fire at all.
The drill, the highlight of this year's Han Kuang or "Han Glory" exercise, mobilised more than 7,000 Taiwanese troops simulating an anti-landing attack against Chinese forces on the coast of the main island of the Penghu archipelago, in the Taiwan Strait just 140km from China.
"We have to strengthen the military in order to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait," said Ma, 62, who was accompanied by Chief of General Staff Yen Ming.
The exercise is not expected to cause tension between Taiwan and China, whose military spending will rise 10.7 per cent this year to 740.6 billion yuan (US$25 billion yuan).
Indeed, critics say Ma has been too cosy with Beijing - which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province - since coming into power in 2008. The two sides have green-lighted direct flights, inked a free trade deal and are in talks to set up representative offices in each other's territory.
Ma has also been criticised for neglecting military affairs. Live-firing drills, once a staple of Han Kuang, was scrapped after he took office. The President went on a tour of Taiwan's allies in Africa last year while the war games was under way, for which he was criticised.
Last month, Washington's former top envoy to Taiwan, William Stanton, said the island's sliding military budgets leave it vulnerable to Chinese attack and may have contributed to "low morale" among Taiwanese troops.
The United States remains Taiwan's main ally and arms supplier despite switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. President Barack Obama's administration has approved a total of US$12 billion in sales of weapons and upgrades to it since 2010.
Taiwan spent just 2.2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence last year, down from 3.8 per cent in 2004. It is also transitioning from a conscription to a volunteer system, which will see its 270,000-strong military shrink to 210,000 and compulsory military service shortened from one year to four months.
Ma sought to allay American concerns on Tuesday at a video conference with former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and other scholars of Stanford University. Strengthening defence capability remains an integral part of Taiwan's three-pronged security strategy, he said, the other two being institutionalisation of the cross-strait rapprochement and making Taiwan a "model world citizen".
Professor Wong Ming-hsien, head of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University, said yesterday's exercise was mainly aimed at addressing foreign concerns that Ma had neglected defence matters, but would also burnish his image at home.
"The live-firing drills will probably continue in future, helping to boost the (ruling) Kuomintang's morale ahead of the 2016 presidential election," said Prof Wong.