Explained: How Significant Are China's Military Drills Around Taiwan And Is Beijing Planning A War?

(MENAFN- AsiaNet News) China commenced its second day of military maneuvers around Taiwan on Friday, conducting exercises aimed at testing their capacity to assert control and dominance over key strategic areas. These drills, undertaken in the Taiwan Strait and in proximity to Taiwan-administered islands off the Chinese coast, were initiated shortly after the inauguration of Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te. The timing, just three days after Lai assumed office, underscores China's displeasure with his leadership.

Taiwan has strongly condemned China's actions, which it perceives as aggressive and provocative. China, asserting its claim over Taiwan as an integral part of its territory, labels Lai as a "separatist" and has criticized his inaugural address. In his speech, Lai called on Beijing to cease its intimidations, emphasizing that the two sides of the strait should engage as equals rather than subordinates to each other.

The Eastern Theatre Command of the People's Liberation Army reiterated in a concise statement that its military exercises, codenamed "Joint Sword - 2024A," persisted on Friday.

The exercises are to "test the ability to jointly seize power, launch joint attacks and occupy key areas", it said.

China has consistently kept the option of using force to assert control over Taiwan on the table. In response to China's military activities, Taiwan's armed forces were activated to monitor and track Chinese movements. The Taiwan Ministry of National Defense released images of F-16 fighter jets armed with live missiles conducting patrols, as well as Chinese coast guard vessels and Jiangdao-class corvettes participating in the drills, although the specific locations were not disclosed.

Despite President Lai's repeated offers for dialogue with China, these overtures have been met with rejection. Lai maintains that Taiwan's future should be determined by its people alone, rejecting Beijing's sovereignty claims. Taiwan, accustomed to China's military posturing, has not been unduly alarmed by the recent drills, and daily life continues as usual on the island.

On China's tightly regulated Weibo social media platform, discussions about the "Eastern Theatre" and "the return of Taiwan" dominated, with the majority of comments expressing support for the military exercises.

How significant are the drills?

The ongoing military drills around Taiwan mark the most significant display of military exercises since similar maneuvers were conducted in August 2022 and April 2023. Despite their significance, these recent drills appeared to be smaller in scale and did not involve live-fire exercises near Taiwan on the first day.

Anticipation for military activities around Taiwan was high this week. Following a relatively subdued response to Lai's victory in January, analysts were vigilant for any Chinese demonstration of strength in response to his inauguration on May 20.

Commenting on the drills, Lt. Gen. Stephen Sklenka, the deputy commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, expressed concern but noted that such actions were anticipated. He highlighted the concerning trend of the normalization of abnormal actions.

The exercises on Thursday notably included coastguard vessels, which have increasingly taken on enforcement and military-related roles in recent years. Following a fatal collision between an illegal Chinese fishing boat and a Taiwanese coastguard vessel near Kinmen in February, China escalated its patrols and explicitly rejected maritime borders it had previously tacitly respected.

How big are these drills in comparison to previous military exercises?

Similar to previous war games, Thursday's exercises also seemed to focus on practicing blockade tactics. Maps of the exercise areas depicted Chinese forces targeting multiple large sea zones surrounding Taiwan, as well as smaller areas near Taiwanese islands adjacent to the Chinese mainland. Notably, the August 2022 drills did not include these smaller Taiwanese islands as targets.

Thus far, the ongoing drills appear to be smaller in scale and intensity compared to those conducted in 2022 and 2023. Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense reported that China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) remained outside the 24-nautical-mile limit of Taiwan's waters and only conducted live-fire exercises inland, rather than in the strait or at sea. No-fly zones were not declared during the exercises.

In 2022, the drills involved the firing of ballistic missiles over Taiwan's main island into the sea. Analysts perceived the 2023 drills as demonstrating an enhanced "war-like" capability, particularly evident in the improved launching of fighter jets from aircraft carriers. This year, the PLA Navy initiated test sailings of its third aircraft carrier, a development that analysts believe will significantly bolster China's ability to maintain a robust presence across the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea.

Why does China dislike Taiwan's new President?

Beijing has framed this week's military exercises as a response to what it perceives as "separatist acts" by Taiwan, namely the election of Lai as president. The Chinese government considers the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as separatist, and since Tsai Ing-wen's assumption of office in 2016, communication between Beijing and Taipei has been severed.

Of particular concern to Beijing is Lai, who has previously been vocal in advocating for Taiwanese independence. Despite softening this stance in recent years, aligning more closely with Tsai's approach of not formally declaring independence while emphasizing Taiwan's existing autonomy, Beijing remains wary of Lai's political leanings.

Lai's inauguration speech, which seemingly emphasized Taiwan's distinct identity from China more strongly than Tsai typically did, elicited strong reactions from Beijing. Chinese state media broadcaster CCTV even went as far as to state that Lai "will be nailed to the pillar of history," highlighting Beijing's strong opposition to any rhetoric or actions perceived as challenging its claims over Taiwan.

Is China planning a war?

Following the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated Republic of China government relocated to Taiwan, while Mao Zedong's communists established the People's Republic of China. Despite this, the Republic of China remains Taiwan's official name, though only a dozen countries officially recognize it diplomatically, predominantly smaller, developing nations such as Palau and Guatemala.

In a commentary published on Friday in the official newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, the People's Daily emphasized the unity and territorial integrity of the nation as a core belief among the Chinese people. It asserted that China cannot be fragmented, destabilized, or its people divided. The commentary criticized recent actions by the "leader of the Taiwan region," suggesting that they would only hasten the demise of pro-independence movements within Taiwan.

While China expressed a willingness to provide ample opportunity for peaceful reunification, it also emphasized a firm stance against any separatist activities in Taiwan. The People's Daily underscored that China would not tolerate such actions and would take measures to counter them.

Xi Jinping has underscored the resolution of the "Taiwan question" as a crucial part of his legacy, with analysts and Western intelligence suggesting deadlines as early as 2027 for the PLA to be prepared for potential conflict.

Zhang Chi, a lecturer at the PLA Defence University, highlighted that the locations chosen for this week's drills served as a warning to Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Zhang, speaking independently and not on behalf of the PLA, noted that the drills in northern areas were intended to send a message regarding Taiwan's energy imports, support lines from the US and other allies, and potential escape routes for pro-independence forces within Taiwan.

Zhang's remarks likely aimed to signal to international observers the seriousness with which the PLA views these exercises, while also reassuring domestic audiences of China's military capabilities and resolve.

There is growing concern that rather than launching a full-scale assault, Beijing may escalate its "grey zone" activities, which are less overtly militaristic and therefore more challenging for Taiwan and other stakeholders to respond to. These activities already include increased coastguard patrols around Taiwan's outlying islands, adjustments to flight paths near the median line, and the frequent deployment of civilian weather balloons into Taiwan's airspace. While these actions may appear civilian and legal, they exert significant pressure on Taiwan and contribute to a sense of instability in the region.


AsiaNet News

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