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There is no sign that China’s exercise has started, more than a week after it was announced. Photo: AP

Why has China yet to start its military exercise off Taiwan?

  • ‘Routine drill’ announced on July 14, but no sign of it taking place
  • It was seen as a response to American support for Taiwan after arms sale and as Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited the United States

Beijing has yet to begin a military exercise targeting Taiwan that it announced nine days ago, as speculation continues about the relatively long wait for it to commence.

The defence ministry said on July 14 that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was to stage a “routine drill” along China’s southeast coast, but so far no further information about it has emerged.
Despite being described as “part of the PLA’s annual plans”, the exercise has been seen as a response to the United States’ increasing support of Taiwan. It was announced less than a week after Washington ratified a US$2.2 billion arms sale to the self-ruled island and as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen prepared to visit New York and Denver.

Although the defence ministry did not specify the drill’s location, the southeast coast of China usually refers to the provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, which face the island across the 200km-wide Taiwan Strait.

Military insiders and observers said that more than a week after the announcement there was still no sign that the drill had begun.

Some believe the announcement referred to a large-scale joint exercise involving the army, navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force, under the new command chain of military theatres. If so, it would be the first large drill in more than a decade and the first exercise on such a scale since the PLA’s 2015 overhaul.

Beijing’s last major joint exercise in the strait, involving 18,000 PLA troops, was in 2004 after a US$18 billion US arms sale to Taiwan.

Some elite mainland Chinese forces have reportedly been mobilised to the Zhejiang coast, including 72nd Group Army, one of the PLA’s amphibious fighting forces, suggesting that the drills would involve landing practice.

The logistics of a military drill of this scale needed time to arrange, according to Song Zhongping, a military analyst in Hong Kong.

“This exercise could include lots of battles for air and sea superiority, amphibious assault, landings and so on. So it can’t be ready in a few days and will cover a large area,” Song said, adding that it would send a message not only to the Taiwanese military but also to the US and its allies.

Officials have yet to announce any prohibited sea or air zones. For live-fire exercises, a warning to passing civilian vessels would usually be issued two or three days in advance, Song said.

Shanghai-based analyst Ni Lexiong said the delay could be due to technical issues while preparing the PLA’s newly developed advanced weapons and technologies to be tested in the exercise.

China fires up drills near Taiwan Strait in test of combat strength

“The PLA should demonstrate its muscle to the Americans and Taiwanese separatists, and also show the people at home something to boost their faith and confidence,” he said.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province to be united with the mainland by force if necessary. It has repeatedly expressed its anger over the US’ relations with Taipei and warned Washington to stick to its one-China policy.

In an eight-month period in 1995 and 1996, the PLA conducted a series of large-scale live-fire exercises in the region in response to the Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the US and ahead of the Taiwanese presidential election.

The exercises included firing missiles into the strait near Taiwan-controlled islets. The US then sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the area to show its willingness to help Taiwan, and the crisis ended in a ceasefire.