Beijing ‘takes aim at Taipei’ with ‘last-minute’ live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait
A military insider says the exercise, which includes China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier, was timed to coincide with a visit to Africa by Taiwan’s leader
Beijing’s first live-fire exercise in the Taiwan Strait in three years, which is expected to include the first drill appearance in the area by aircraft carrier the Liaoning, appears to be a last-minute countermove to Washington’s attempt to play the Taiwan card, according to analysts.
The surprise one-day exercise, which is scheduled for Wednesday, coincides with a visit to Africa by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who will head to Swaziland on Tuesday for a four-day trip.
When asked about the exercise on Friday, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office underscored the mainland’s commitment to “defeat any forms of ‘Taiwan independence’ schemes and defend the country’s sovereignty and integrity”.
Beijing announced the drill on Thursday, just hours after Chinese President Xi Jinping boarded the Liaoning to inspect the biggest naval parade ever staged by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.
Then, on Friday, Tsai visited a Taiwanese naval base in Yilan county, her first official inspection of the island’s warships since assuming office in May 2016.
Boarding a Kidd-class destroyer, Tsai said she was confident about the Taiwanese military’s combat readiness and ability to respond rapidly to challenges from Beijing, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, an international relations professor at Tamkang University, said the timing of the drill appeared to be intentional.
“The exercise is going to take place when Tsai, who is also Taiwan’s commander-in-chief, is out of the office on an overseas trip,” he said.
Military observers said the exercise off the Fujian coast – just 45km (28 miles) from the Taiwan-controlled island of Quemoy – would be another large-scale show of naval might and involve the aircraft carrier, which has also taken part in live-fire exercises in waters off Boao and Sanya in the past 10 days.
Song Zhongping, a former member of the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps, said the Liaoning’s presence would send a strong message to Taipei.
“It’s likely the Liaoning carrier strike group will take part in the Taiwan Strait drill, presenting a direct and powerful deterrence to Tsai’s administration and the island’s independence-leaning forces,” he said.
The waters off Sanya were originally expected to be cordoned off for three days of military activity, ending on Friday, but that was cut back to two with the Central Military Commission’s sudden announcement of the Taiwan Strait drills, a source close to the PLA told the South China Morning Post.
“The PLA Navy flotillas need several days to reach the new drill site from Sanya. That’s why the exercise will be conducted on April 18,” the person said.
The source said one key aim of the Taiwan Strait exercise was to show Beijing’s support for Russia, which is facing a possible face-to-face military confrontation with the United States in Syria.
“[US President] Donald Trump’s warning of military attacks on Syria forces was a bit of a surprise for Beijing and Moscow,” the person said.
“As Russia’s strategic partner, Beijing is trying to cause some well-timed and controlled trouble for the US, a drill in the Taiwan Strait being the most plausible option that will benefit both Xi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.”
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong agreed, saying: “Beijing is trying to give some relief to Russia from the unfolding disputes with the US over the Syria crisis.”
Chinese Defence Minister and State Councillor Wei Fenghe visited Moscow last week, saying the trip was to highlight to Washington the strength of ties between China and Russia and cooperation between their armed forces.
But specialists in Sino-US ties argued that the drill was aimed more directly at Taipei ahead of a possible visit by US national security adviser John Bolton to the new American Institute in Taiwan.
It also comes hard on the heels of Washington’s promise to help Taiwan build its own submarines, and the passage of new rules allowing top-level US officials to travel to Taiwan – developments that have antagonised Beijing.
“The live-fire drills would almost certainly be intended to be seen as a response to the Trump administration’s new initiatives over Taiwan,” Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said.
“It is probably intended more for Taipei than Washington as the military exercise cannot intimidate the US but can get Taipei to think of the security dilemma, which is that the more Taipei seeks to secure US support, the more Beijing will do to make Taipei feel less secure.”
Ni Feng, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the overlap of the Taiwan Strait drill with the crisis in Syria was coincidental.
“Beijing needs to send its warning to Taipei on time if Bolton wants to visit Taipei, which will obviously be a breakthrough [in the US-Taiwan relationship],” he said.
Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, agreed, saying Trump’s attempts to play multiple cards with Beijing were pushing Beijing to fight back.
“With Trump’s love for transactions and linking issues together, it is conceivable that he is using Taiwan as a potential bargaining chip with China,” she said.
That move increases “the possibility of an armed conflict between the US and [mainland] China out of miscalculation; and it creates an illusion that Taiwan is up for negotiation”.
“For many policy experts, US support for Taiwan is warranted, and should be independent from political or economic deals [between Washington and Beijing].”