China kicks off ‘punishment’ drills around Taiwan


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China has kicked off its largest military exercises around Taiwan in more than a year, calling the drills “punishment for . . . separatist plots for independence” just three days after Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te took office.

The People’s Liberation Army said the exercises, scheduled to take place in waters and airspace surrounding Taiwan over the next two days, were also a “serious warning against outside interference and provocations”.

The move marks Beijing’s first military reaction to the inauguration of Lai, whom the Chinese Communist party has denounced as a “dangerous separatist”.

The PLA’s Eastern Theater Command said the army, navy, air force and rocket force would practice “seizing control of the battlefield”, striking key targets and sailing and flying close to Taiwan’s main island.

It said the forces would conduct combat readiness patrols and operate inside and outside the “first island chain”, which runs from Japan to the Philippines off the Chinese coast — language widely understood to be a reference to simulations of operations to keep US forces from coming to Taiwan’s support from the western Pacific.

“This is the first of many measures that Beijing is likely to take in order to punish and warn both Taiwan and the US,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “This will be followed by other military, economic and diplomatic measures.”

Lai pledged in his inaugural address on Monday to preserve the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and called on Beijing to work with him for peace and common prosperity instead of engaging in military intimidation — a statement his aides called a gesture of goodwill.

But he also said the country needed to step up efforts to preserve its sovereignty and defend itself against Chinese encroachment and threats, emphasising more clearly and forcefully the status of the Republic of China — Taiwan’s official name — as a country separate from the People’s Republic of China.

Beijing has called his address “deceitful” and “provocative”.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and threatens to take it by force if Taipei refuses to submit to its control indefinitely. Over the past few years, Beijing has stepped up a military intimidation campaign featuring regular air and naval manoeuvres that have gradually moved closer to Taiwan’s territory. It has also conducted occasional large-scale drills in response to political moves by Taipei that it disapproves of.

In August 2022, the PLA conducted unprecedented exercises simulating a blockade of Taiwan. The army shot missiles over the island that landed in the exclusive economic zone of Japan after Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taipei.

In April last year, Beijing reacted to a meeting between then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Lai’s predecessor Tsai Ing-wen in California with another round of military drills.

A map released by the People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command shows the areas where military exercises are taking place under what it calls ‘Operation Joint Sword-2024A’ © Handout/People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theater Command

The two-day exercises announced on Thursday appeared designed to be smaller than the August 2022 ones, which lasted more than a week. But the PLA published a map showing five areas surrounding Taiwan’s main island where it said the drills would take place. Three of those areas appeared to closely border Taiwan’s waters in the north, east and south.

Moreover, China’s coastguard announced what it called law enforcement patrols around several Taiwan-held islands just off the Chinese coast. Chinese law enforcement vessels will sail as close as three nautical miles from those islands, according to a map published by China’s Fujian province coastguard.

“The question is: will there be actions taken that we haven’t seen in previous exercises?” Glaser said, pointing to the possibility that Chinese ships could enter Taiwan’s contiguous zone just 24 nautical miles off the coast. Beijing could also conduct inspections of ships around Taiwan.

During the drills in April 2023, Beijing paired the PLA’s manoeuvres with an announcement that its Maritime Safety Administration would inspect ships on certain routes in the Taiwan Strait — a move aimed at undermining Taiwan’s jurisdiction. At the time, Taiwan escorted ships on the relevant routes and Beijing did not follow through.

Taiwan’s defence ministry called the exercises an “irrational provocation and act that undermines regional peace and stability”. It said it had dispatched naval and air forces and that Taiwan would “protect our freedom and democracy and safeguard the Republic of China’s sovereignty with concrete action”.

The ministry did not immediately clarify whether forces were just on alert or had been sent towards the exercise areas. Taiwan’s military regularly scrambles fighter jets and sails naval ships to the edge of its contiguous zone to warn off PLA forces when they come close.


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