TAIPEI (AFP) - Taiwanese coastguards said Sunday they will next month stage a live-fire exercise in disputed South China Sea islands with new, longer-range artillery and mortars, in a move that risks fresh tensions.

The potentially resource-rich sea, home to important trade routes, is an increasingly dangerous flashpoint and there have been a string of recent diplomatic rows between countries with overlapping territorial claims.

Taiwan's drill will take place on Taiping Island in the Spratlys, a sprawling group of islands claimed in whole or part by Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei, the coastguard said.

The coastguard said it would take place in September but did not give an exact date.

Vietnam already voiced anger after Taiwan last week moved new weaponry to the island in preparation for the drill, sparking a rebuke from Taipei.

"Taiping Island is one of the islands in the area that has long been governed by" Taiwan, the foreign ministry said in a statement. "Its sovereignty is indisputable."

The drill on the island, the biggest in the Spratlys, involves newly arrived 40mm artillery and 120mm mortars, the Taipei-based United Evening News said, which also reported that several lawmakers will watch the drill.

The range of the 120mm mortars is 6.1 kilometers (3.8 miles), compared with 4.1 kilometers (2.5 miles) for the mortars currently in use by Taiwanese coastguards on Taiping Island, the paper said.

All claimants except Brunei have troops based on the archipelago of more than 100 islets, reefs and atolls, which sprawl across a vast area but have a total land mass of less than five square kilometres (two square miles).

South China Sea tensions escalated last month when China announced a new city and military garrison in the dipusted Paracel Islands, prompting Washington to voice concern.

Malaysia urges ASEAN to unite over South China Sea

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia (AFP) - Malaysia's foreign minister urged Southeast Asian countries on Sunday to settle their overlapping claims in the South China Sea before bringing them up with Beijing.

Anifah Aman's comments, following an hour-long meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, imply that Malaysia wants ASEAN to present a more united front against an increasingly assertive China.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have overlapping claims in the resource-rich sea, as does Taiwan.

China claims sovereignty over almost all of it.

Anifah said a repeat of confrontation, such as a June standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships over Scarborough Shoal, should be avoided.

"We are confident we can resolve this matter. China is also earnest in its desire in finding solutions... This issue can be settled through peaceful means," he told reporters.

"There are overlapping claims by member countries. Let us discuss these among ASEAN countries first before we talk to China," he added.

"We can only achieve this objective in the South China Sea if all parties agree. Then China can appreciate this and realise it is ASEAN's wish."

Anifah did not give any time frame for such an ASEAN meeting.

ASEAN foreign ministers failed to move ahead on the South China Sea issue at a regional ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh in July. The dispute prevented ASEAN from producing a joint communique for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history.

China's foreign minister, who met Malaysia's prime minister on Saturday, did not attend a press conference with Anifah but told reporters that China "firmly" supported ASEAN community building.

"We firmly support the idea continuously that ASEAN is in the driver's seat in terms of East Asian cooperation," he said. "We agreed that we will continue to work together in cooperation and accommodating each other's concerns and interests."

Anifah said that ASEAN and China should work toward "the early conclusion" of a long-stalled regional code of conduct designed to reduce tensions over fishing, shipping rights and oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.


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