Taiwan’s Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that Beijing was using “cheap verbal intimidation and saber rattling” to threaten Taiwan, as China’s military began live-fire drills in the sensitive Taiwan Strait amid growing tension.
The exercises kicked off in a two square mile section of the Taiwan Strait — between two groups of islands close to China’s southeastern coast in Fujian Province — islands Taiwan has controlled since 1949 when defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war. These were the first live fire exercises conducted by the PRC in the area since 2016.
Chinese state media has said the drills are a direct response to “provocations” by Taiwanese leaders related to what China fears are moves to push for the island’s formal independence. On Tuesday, Taiwan started its own live-fire shooting exercises in Matsu and Kinmen, two Taiwanese islands close to China.
When asked Monday if the PRC drills in the Taiwan Strait were meant to underscore China’s desires to quash any ideas of true Taiwan independence, Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said, “the Chinese mainland is firmly against ‘Taiwan independence. We would like to reaffirm that we have strong determination, confidence and capability to destroy any type of ‘Taiwan independence’ scheme in order to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Taiwan is one of China’s most sensitive issues and a potential military flash point. China has ramped up military exercises around Taiwan in the past year, including flying bombers around the island.
The latest Chinese military movements come during a time of heightened tension between Beijing and the self-governed island and follows strong warnings by Chinese President Xi Jinping against Taiwan separatism last month. China has been increasing pressure on Taiwan in recent months. Concurrently the Trump administration has taken steps to show strong support for its longtime ally. While the drills Wednesday were most likely planned far in advance, they come at a time when the United States and China are increasingly at odds over a number of issues besides Taiwan, most notably trade.
China has never wavered from its claims that the democratic Taiwan is just a breakaway province from the mainland. But China’s hostility toward Taiwan has grown even more vocal since Tsai Ing-wen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won presidential elections on the island in 2016 and since Xi JinPing has continued his consolidation of power on the mainland.
Recently, Chinese Communist Party leadership was angered by comments made by Taiwan Premier William Lai in support of Taiwan independence. The Taiwan government’s official line is to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait but Chinese state television, in a report on its WeChat account, said the drills were at least partly a response to Lai’s comments.
“Don’t say you weren’t warned,” it said.
The PLA-Navy also conducted large-scale exercises off Hainan Island in the South China Sea last week. Xi JinPing was shown on state television wearing camouflage fatigues and watching as fighter jets took off from the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier. According to the state news media agency, the exercise was the largest ever carried out by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the New York Times that the South China Sea exercises were “more about a military parade at sea than anything else.”
“But in the Taiwan Strait it is a warning,” she added. “I think it’s sort of usefully timed but not really planned for this particular moment. The U.S. and Taiwan are seen as heading in a direction that is getting perilously close to Chinese red lines. That is a perception by the Chinese.”
Featured Image Courtesy of the Associated Press