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China begins military drills around Taiwan as 'punishment' for new leader

Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te delivers an acceptance speech during his inauguration ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan, May 20, 2024.
Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te delivers an acceptance speech during his inauguration ceremony in Taipei, Taiwan, May 20, 2024.

China kicked off a two-day large-scale military exercise in the water and airspace around Taiwan on Thursday, emphasizing that it is "a strong punishment for the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence forces’" and "a stern warning" against provocation by external forces.

The Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army will conduct drills in the Taiwan Strait, the north, south, and east of Taiwan as well as in areas near Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen and Matsu islands, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The drills, which involve the army, navy, air force, and rocket force of the Eastern theater command, will concentrate on joint sea-air combat readiness patrol, joint seizure of comprehensive battlefield control, and joint precision strikes on key targets, Eastern Theater Command spokesperson Li Xi said.

Some analysts say the exercise is part of Beijing’s display of anger toward Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te, who took office Monday.

The military exercise is "meant to be a warning to both the Lai administration and Washington that it can and will continue to put the squeeze on Taiwan if Lai does not return to a more moderate tone and approach" to cross-strait relations, Amanda Hsiao, a senior China analyst at International Crisis Group, said.

However, despite the attempt to push the new Taiwanese government to soften its position, Hsiao said Beijing’s forceful response may have the opposite effect.

"Given the Lai administration’s deep distrust of Beijing and the domestic pressures they are currently facing, Taipei may hold even firmer to their cross-strait line," she told VOA in a written response.

In response to the Chinese military’s announcement, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said Beijing’s "irrational provocation" will damage regional peace and stability and that it will take practical actions, including deploying Taiwan’s naval, air, and ground forces, to protect freedom and safeguard Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Some Taiwanese military analysts say the priority for Taiwan is to keep strengthening its defense capabilities and enhance Taiwan’s defense budget.

"The Chinese military exercise is part of Beijing’s long-term pressure campaign against Taiwan, so Taipei needs to ensure it has enough defense capabilities to withstand the growing pressure from Beijing and maintain peace in the region," Su Tzu-yun, a military expert at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told VOA by phone.

A firmer assertion of Taiwan’s sovereignty

China’s large-scale military exercise around Taiwan comes after Beijing criticized Lai for his "downright confession of Taiwan independence" through his inauguration speech Monday.

"The speech fully demonstrated that Lai is ‘a traitor to mainstream public opinion on the island and a disruptor of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,’" said Chen Binhua, the spokesperson of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles cross-strait relations.

He reiterated that "Taiwan independence is a dead end" and that attempts to pursue "Taiwan independence" through support from external forces will only backfire.

"However, in response to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) authorities' collusion with external forces to provoke and seek independence, we must counteract and punish them," Chen said during a regular press conference on Tuesday, according to Xinhua.

During his inauguration speech on Monday, Lai urged Beijing to cease political and military intimidation against Taiwan and proposed that both sides could start cross-strait exchange through the resumption of tourism on a reciprocal basis or enrollment of degree students in Taiwanese institutions.

However, he also warned the Taiwanese people of China’s ambition to "annex Taiwan" and reiterated that "the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other."

Hsiao, from the International Crisis Group, said what Lai said in the speech suggests a potential deviation from his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen’s more moderate approach to cross-strait relations.

"He didn’t reaffirm the conciliatory gesture that Tsai offered, that cross-strait relations would be conducted in accordance with the Republic of China’s constitution," she told VOA.

During her inauguration address in 2020, Tsai said Taiwan would handle cross-strait affairs according to the Republic of China’s constitution and the Act Governing Relations between People of Taiwan and "the mainland area," which she said had been the island’s consistent position to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. However, Lai didn’t reaffirm the same position in his inauguration speech on Monday.

In her view, while Tsai maintained some ambiguities in her characterization of cross-strait relations, Lai "appears resistant to doing so." "He wants to state clearly and loudly that China and Taiwan are two separate states [and] his calculation may be that Tsai’s moderate approach didn’t pay off after all," Hsiao added.

Some experts say since Thursday’s military exercise has been called the "Joint Sword 2024A," this suggests that China could conduct more military exercises of the similar scale in the near future. "Since Beijing is extremely disappointed and even furious now, more strong responses will follow," Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of political science at Bucknell University, told VOA in a written response.

During a speech on Thursday in the Australian capital Canberra, Deputy Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Lieutenant General Stephen Sklenka said China’s military exercises around Taiwan are "concerning" but not unexpected. He added that the Chinese military practiced maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait in 2023 that would be key to a potential invasion of the island.

Taiwan military analyst Su said China’s latest military exercise around Taiwan may create backlash for Beijing.

"Thursday’s exercise will only prove that China’s threat to Taiwan is real and it may convince like-minded democracies, especially the United States, to be more engaged in relevant efforts to deter Beijing from continuing such behaviors," he told VOA.

Going forward, Hsiao said the dynamic between Taiwan and China "looks bleak."

"[While] limiting the escalation of tensions is possible, it will require Beijing recognize that its pressures are unlikely to be effective and the Lai administration to see value in signaling a more moderate line," she told VOA.

Additionally, Hsiao said she thinks Washington’s response may also affect cross-strait dynamics since there are no direct channels of communication between Beijing and Taipei.