Taiwan says it plans rescue drills in South China Sea this month

An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Taiwanese military plane shows the view of Itu Aba, which the Taiwanese call Taiping, at the South China Sea, March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan’s coastguard has said it plans to hold rescue drills in waters around Taipei’s sole territorial holding in the disputed South China Sea at the end of this month, and that the drills could involve its navy.

The exercises to be held around Itu Aba, known by Taiwan as Taiping, would include drills in rescuing shipwrecked personnel, the coastguard said. More details would be released later, it said in a statement on its website late on Sunday.

“Currently the navy regularly patrols near Taiping Island. We don’t rule out the navy playing a supporting role in future humanitarian rescue drills being held near Taiping,” the Coast Guard Administration said in the statement.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.

Taiwan has largely kept out of disputes between China and its neighbors, but the planned drills would be the first since President Tsai Ing-wen took power in May.

In July, a judgment by an international court classified Itu Aba was a rock and not an island, thereby making it ineligible to own a greater economic zone of resources off its coast.

Taiwan’s coastguard has had direct oversight of Itu Aba since 2000, when it took over from the Taiwanese military. More than 100 coastguard personnel are stationed on Itu Aba.

China distrusts Tsai and her ruling independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, but Beijing has previously maintained that Beijing and Taipei had a common duty to protect Chinese sovereignty in the waterway.

The United States, Taiwan’s only major political ally, criticized former president Ma Ying-jeou for visiting Itu Aba earlier this year because it did not want tensions to escalate in the South China Sea.

Reporting by J.R. Wu; Editing by Paul Tait