March 2, 2017 / 6:02 AM / 5 months ago

Taiwan navy, air force to train in disputed South China Sea

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Soldiers pose for photo during International Maritime and Defense Industry Exposition in Kaohsiung, Taiwan September 16, 2016.Tyrone Siu/Files

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan's navy will step up regular patrols around the South China Sea and conduct joint training with the air force in response to China's growing military power in the disputed waterways, the island's defence minister said on Thursday.

Beijing, which claims almost all the South China Sea, has regularly flown military jets over the waters and recently sailed its first aircraft carrier around Taiwan in what it called routine drills.

"Looking ahead at the transformation of China's strategy and its investment in new weapons equipment, our military will practise new reforms in our training," Taiwan Defence Minister Feng Shih-kuan told a parliamentary session.

"The navy, during its regular South China Sea patrols, will conduct joint training with the air force in protecting fishermen and supply transports, and in humanitarian rescue drills to expand the combat readiness of our sea and air patrols."

Taiwan deploys regular supplies to Itu Aba, its sole holding in the South China Sea, the energy rich waters that are also claimed by China, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.

Feng's remarks come ahead of China's new defence budget for 2017, to be unveiled on the weekend at the annual meeting of the Chinese parliament. The figures are closely watched around the region and in Washington for clues to China's intentions.

Self-ruled Taiwan is increasingly concerned over China's military threat. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take back what it deems a wayward province.

The Chinese Defence Ministry added in a later statement that Chinese air force jets on Thursday flew to the southeast of Japan's Miyako island, which sits to Taiwan's northeast, to carry out joint drills with Chinese warships.

The need for China to practise these drills in bigger air and sea space, particularly in the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan's east, represents "an increase in threat", Feng said.

Reporting by J.R. Wu; Editing by Michael Perry

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