Beijing launches live-fire drill to ‘test combat strength against Taiwan’

Six-day exercise in the East China Sea also meant to send message to United States and Japan over ties with Taipei, observers say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 7:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2018, 10:42am

Beijing is testing its military muscle in a six-day, live-fire drill over an area “roughly the size of Taiwan” in the East China Sea, just days after President Xi Jinping pledged to work for peaceful cross-strait development.

Analysts said the exercise was in line with Beijing’s effort to increase military readiness while showing resolve to defend the “one China” policy, under which Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province awaiting reunification.

The drill started on Wednesday but Beijing has so far released few other details.

But the Zhejiang Maritime Safety Administration announced on Monday that an area close to the port of Zhoushan, in Zhejiang province, to waters east of Wenzhou, also in Zhejiang, would be cordoned off to all marine traffic from Wednesday to Monday for military activity involving live ammunition.

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The Global Times, part of the stable of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, reported that the drill area was about the size of Taiwan and the exercise was a complex, joint operation designed to simulate real combat against Taipei.

It said the East China Sea would be one of the main battlefields if conflict broke out between Beijing and Taipei.

The comments are a contrast in tone to Xi’s meeting with Lien Chan, former chairman of Taiwan’s mainland-friendly Kuomintang, in Beijing on Friday, when the Chinese president said “we have the confidence and ability to … work for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations, and advance the process toward the peaceful reunification of China”.

The drill also started a day after Taiwan’s second squadron of US-made Apache AH-64E attack helicopters went into service.

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Observers said the drill was designed to send a warning to not only Taiwan but also Washington and Japan, with concerns over the island’s relations with the United States rising since US warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait earlier this month.

The USS Mustin and USS Benfold passed through the strait about two weeks ago, becoming the first American warships to do so in a year.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Maritime Security Programme at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the drill area was strategically placed to send signals to “players in the Taiwan Strait situation” while not causing tension elsewhere.

Koh said Japan was a factor because of its closer ties with the island.

“This drill has no direct relation with [an] ongoing dispute with Japan but more so with Tokyo’s links with Taiwan, and the supporting functions it plays for the US military in times of a cross-strait conflict,” he said.

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said: “The passage of US warships has worsened Sino-US relations and bolstered the separatists’ forces in the island. The Chinese military should respond in a timely manner to the situation.”

Beijing has strengthened its military presence near Taiwan, sailing its sole operating aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in January and March and holding large-scale “encirclement” exercises nearby in recent months.

Beijing has also managed to deplete Taipei’s diplomatic allies, luring away four since Taiwan’s independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016 and leaving it with only 18 countries worldwide that recognise it contrary to Beijing’s wishes.