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CORRECTED: Taiwan holds unprecedented naval drill.

TAIPEI, Sept. 12 Kyodo

The Taiwanese military, in unusually open yet bold naval exercises Wednesday, invited foreign and domestic media for the first time to observe from a Kidd-class destroyer drills aimed at countering China's navy in the Taiwan Strait.

Its flight deck thronged with reporters, the destroyer Keelung -- accompanied by three frigates, a submarine, and other vessels and aircraft -- cruised 54 kilometers west of Taiwan toward China to stage a live-fire drill and antisubmarine maneuvers.

''The media had never boarded our Kidd-class destroyers before today,'' said military spokesman Lt.-Col. Ben Wang. ''This is to let the public know that the destroyers are capable of fighting.''

Taiwan purchased four Kidd-class destroyers from the United States as part of an arms deal that Washington had offered to the island in 2001.

Two of the destroyers were delivered to Taipei in 2005 and two last year amid rival China's military rise.

Though manufactured in the mid-1970s, the U.S.-made, 172-meter destroyers are now the centerpiece of Taiwan's navy, boasting more power and sophisticated weapons systems than those of China's naval warships.

''We can't compete with China in terms of quantity,'' said Rear Adm. Liu Chih-chien while speaking to the press on board the destroyer, referring to China's growing fleet of indigenous and Russian-made naval vessels.

''But we can compete in terms of quality,'' Liu said. ''We're confident that we're stronger than China.''

That strength was on full display as the destroyer's 5-inch guns fired bone-rattling shots across the ocean to demonstrate their power and precision.

In an even stronger message to China, whose submarine fleet is expanding rapidly, the destroyer also staged an antisubmarine warfare drill by cooperating with a Seahawk S-70C helicopter to locate and force to the surface a diesel-electric submarine.

A ''Sea Dragon'' Taiwanese sub surfaced portside as part of the drill after the helicopter lowered a sonar device into the water to locate it.

''Not even Japan's navy has been so open'' in letting the media board a warship as important as the Kidd-class while on maneuvers, said Andrei Chang, a military expert and founder of the Kanwa Defense Review, a Hong Kong-based publication on military-related developments in the region.

''From the way they operate the destroyer to its weapons, Taiwan, it seems, has molded its navy in the image of NATO,'' Chang added.

Military officials Wednesday denied the timing of the exercises were related to stalled arms procurement deals for Taiwan in Washington, or the island's push to hold a referendum next year on whether it should join the United Nations under the name ''Taiwan'' -- a move panned by both China and the United States as a ''provocative'' assertion of statehood.

''These are just regular exercises,'' Wang said.

China, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province, has threatened to attack the self-ruled island if it moves too far toward formal independence.

Eager to curry favor with Beijing for wide-ranging economic and diplomatic reasons, Washington seeks to rein in Taiwan's independence movement, and is rumored to be stalling on Taiwan's request to buy defensive missiles, antisubmarine aircraft and F-16s as punishment for the island's push to hold the referendum.

But with China scrambling to beef up its submarine and warship fleets, time for the democratic island of 23 million to upgrade its navy to counter Beijing's growing threat on the high seas is running short.

''We need (that hardware) to defend against submarines. We need it to defend our nation,'' Liu said aboard the destroyer as it steamed toward China.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Sep 15, 2007
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