China launches ‘punishment’ drills around Taiwan after inauguration of new president

China launches ‘punishment’ drills around Taiwan after inauguration of new president

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China has launched two days of military drills surrounding Taiwan, as “punishment” for what it called the “separatist acts” of holding an election and inaugurating a new president.

Chinese state media claimed that dozens of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighter jets carrying live missiles had carried out mock strikes against “high value military targets”, operating alongside navy and rocket forces. Propaganda images spreading online and republished by state media also mentioned China’s land-based Dongfeng ballistic missiles, but did not say if they were being used.

In response to the drills, Taiwan accused China of “irrational provocation and disruption of regional peace and stability”. The defence ministry said sea, air and ground forces had been put on alert, base security had been strengthened, and air defence and missile forces ordered to monitor possible targets. It was also preparing for cognitive warfare operations.

The drills are the first substantive response from China to the inauguration of Lai Ching-te as Taiwan’s newest president on Monday, after winning the democratic election in January. Both Lai and his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen are from the pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive party (DPP), which Beijing considers to be separatists.

Chinese state media reported on Thursday morning that the drills, code-named Joint Sword-2024A, would involve units from the army, navy, air force and rocket force, operating in the Taiwan Strait, to the north, south and east of the main island. Units will also operate around the islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu, and Dongyin, which are all close to the Chinese mainland.

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A spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Li Xi, said the drills would “serve as a strong punishment for the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence’ forces and a stern warning against the interference and provocation by external forces”, state media agency Xinhua reported.

On Thursday afternoon, the state broadcaster said Lai’s speech was “extremely harmful” and that the drills – which it called “countermeasures” – were “legitimate, legal and necessary”.

“The current military exercise not only does not help peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, but also highlights the hegemonic nature of the [Chinese Communist party],” Taiwan’s ministry of defence said.

Analysts said the name of the exercise, suffixed “2024A” suggested more drills targeting Taiwan could be expected this year.

“This feels like a prelude to more and bigger military drills to come,” said Wen-ti Sung, a political analyst and China expert at the Australian National University, on X.

“This is a signal to shape international narratives. The real ‘punishment’ against Taiwan may be yet to come, for it takes time.”

Beijing claims Taiwan is a province of China, and has vowed to annex it, by force if necessary. Taiwan’s government and people overwhelmingly reject the prospect of CCP rule, and Taiwan’s leaders have vowed to increase deterrence measures and boost defences, while urging China to cease its threats and return to dialogue.

In recent years, China has heightened its pressure on Taiwan, with increased air force incursions into its air defence identification zone, economic coercion, and cognitive warfare, designed to convince Taiwan to accept a Chinese takeover without war.

Maps of the drill areas published on Thursday morning showed the drills operating in similar areas as in 2022, when China surrounded Taiwan with live-fire exercises in response to a visit to Taipei by the then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi. However, analysts noted the new addition of Taiwan’s offshore islands, suggesting the PLA was practising new strategies.

In 2023, China again staged large-scale drills, in response to a meeting in the US between president Tsai and US Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Those drills escalated the tactics displayed in 2022, simulating a blockade of Taiwan and pre-invasion attacks.

On Tuesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office had warned of undefined “countermeasures” to Lai’s inauguration speech, in which he called on China to end its hostility. Any speech by a president belonging to the DPP, short of capitulating to Beijing’s position that Taiwan belongs to China, was likely to provoke an angry response. Military drills like those launched on Tuesday trills take extensive planning, and these were likely prepared for long before Lai’s address.

Deputy Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, Lt Gen Stephen Sklenka, told press in Canberra on Thursday that China’s threats needed to be taken seriously, but an attack or invasion was not inevitable or imminent. He said foreign governments, particularly those in this region, had to publicly condemn China’s actions.

“The normalisation of abnormal actions, that’s what’s happening. Just because we expect that behaviour doesn’t mean we shouldn’t condemn it.”

He added: “So it is concerning, but I also believe in my heart of hearts a conflict between our two nations is not inevitable and it’s not a foregone conclusion.”

China’s coast guard also appeared to be involved in drills on Thursday, with the Fujian branch announcing it was running law enforcement drills around Taiwan’s offshore islands near China’s mainland coastline. This year Kinmen and Matsu, islands close to the Chinese mainland, have been increasingly targeted by Chinese Coast Guard patrols.

After a fatal collision between an illegal Chinese fishing boat and a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel near Kinmen in February, China responded with increased patrols and an explicit rejection of maritime borders which they had until then tacitly respected. Patrols through Kinmen’s restricted waters have since become more consistent, in what some analysts say is China’s strategy of shrinking Taiwan’s territorial space and normalising incursions.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said on Thursday his government would contact Beijing to “directly and clearly” communicate to Beijing the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Japan has a strong relationship with Taiwan and is a close ally of the US. It has grown more vocal in its concerns about China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait, in part because of Japanese territory that is close to Taiwan. During the Pelosi drills, Tokyo lodged strong complaints with Beijing over the firing of PLA missiles across the island of Taiwan and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

The Guardian