Taiwan reportedly assembled a team of elite soldiers for a special task in 1990: to blow up the lighthouse erected by Japanese on the Senkaku Islands, a secret mission that has now been revealed as Taiwan asserts its role in the territorial dispute in the East China Sea.

Sometime in October 1990, 45 soldiers in their early 20s were rounded up to form the 62nd airborne brigade, a special attack unit to carry out “Exercise Han Chiang”, which means “land of the Chinese people”, reports the Asahi Shimbun.

Only single men with brothers were selected for the elite team and members were not expected to be discharged in the near future. They were also banned from all contact with their families.

The mission was simple: destroy the lighthouse and raise the Taiwanese flag.

The army, based in Longtan, planned to drop the elite unit by helicopter on Uotsurishima, the largest of the Senkaku Islands, and fly immediately back to Taiwan. Each soldier was allowed only a minimum arsenal of weapons – a small automatic firearm, four hand grenades and a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher – due to weight restrictions.

Early November 5, 1990, after weeks of intensive training, the team boarded helicopters but flew back even before the mission started.

“The mission is over. We will collect all of the equipment. I want all of you to sign documents promising confidentiality,” the brigade commander told the team.

It was believed that former President Lee Tenghui made the order to abort the mission. “The issue would not have been resolved even if the unit had landed on the island,” Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the first official to acknowledge the existence of the operation, said in early November.

Reports of the mission surfaced amid growing sentiment in Taiwan that it needed to assert its claim in the dispute and avoid being set aside by Japan and China.

“Japan is afraid that Taiwan will partner with China after it takes a more rigid stance on the issue. But what Japan is doing is forcing us to partner with China,” military analyst and former army officer Huang Ming-chun told the Asahi Shimbun.