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Eastern Theatre Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army held military exercises in the waters around Taiwan this month. Observers expect the PLA will draw on other theatre commands for support during future drills, and even rotate troops. Photo: Xinhua

Taiwan drills: PLA sends in extra troops to back up Eastern Theatre Command

  • PLA brings in air force personnel and anti-submarine aircraft from neighbouring theatre commands for military exercises
  • Troops expected to be rotated through to work with Eastern Theatre Command for ‘Taiwan contingency’, analyst says
PLA air force personnel from around the country were deployed to support drills led by the Eastern Theatre Command against Taiwan, with more troops expected to be deployed for regular joint combat training, according to observers.
In anti-submarine and sea assault drills on Monday, several anti-submarine aircraft from the Southern Theatre Command in Guangdong province were deployed to the target waters.

State broadcaster CCTV released footage showing Russian-made Ka-28 anti-sub helicopters taking part in the air and naval joint operation.

On Monday, several anti-submarine aircraft based in east Guangdong province in the neighbouring Southern Theatre Command were deployed to the PLA’s target waters. Photo:

“It’s essential for air force squadrons in the Southern and Northern theatre commands, as well as warships overseeing the Yellow Sea and South China Sea in the North and East fleets, to work together with the Eastern Theatre Command in the event of a Taiwan contingency,” said Song Zhongping, a former PLA instructor, said.

“A possible war over Taiwan is a complicated and comprehensive operation of A2/AD [anti-access and area-denial], requiring the air force and warships from the three theatre commands to share different roles in their tasks to stop foreign military interventions from the south and north.”

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of Canada-based Kanwa Asian Defence, said Beijing applied similar tactics in the aftermath of its “counter-attack war” with Vietnam in 1979, with People’s Liberation Army troops from what were then eight military commands taking turns being deployed to mountain borders in Guangxi and Yunnan provinces for its long “attrition fight” until 1989.

Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, said the PLA’s previous training indicated its pilots no longer found the sky and waters around Taiwan a “strange space”.

“Early reports showed even pilots from the Liaoning air force base under the Northern Theatre Command were flying to Shuimen Air Base in Fujian province, which is opposite Taiwan,” Lu said, referring to a CCTV report in March last year.

In March 2021, CCTV video footage showing all-weather flight training suggested a flying brigade based in eastern Liaoning province flew fighter jets to land at Ningde airbase in Fujian province. Photo: YouTube

In the CCTV video footage, about the all-weather flight training of a flying brigade based in northeastern Liaoning province, pilots flew fighter jets to land at an airbase with a stone tablet showing “Air Force Bridgehead”, a landmark at the PLA’s Ningde military base in Fujian province and just 250km (155 miles) from Taipei.

CCTV also broadcast a video in March 2021 declaring that different theatre commands had flown 5,000km for cross-region training, with pilots from the north flying to Fujian on the southeastern coast, while navy pilots in the south headed to the high-altitude Himalayas.

What are China’s theatre commands and service branches?

The Eastern Theatre Command, which oversees the Taiwan Strait, announced on Wednesday it had “successfully wrapped up” its six-day war games, and would “continue to organise regular combat readiness patrols against Taiwan”.

This is the first time the Eastern Theatre Command has recognised that the PLA intends to make the war games routine, with observers saying Beijing had seized an opportunity to make “a military breakthrough” in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taipei visit.


‘Proud of trip to Taiwan’: US House Speaker Pelosi describes visit that angered mainland China

‘Proud of trip to Taiwan’: US House Speaker Pelosi describes visit that angered mainland China

During the drills following Pelosi’s departure on August 3, mainland military jets crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, a de facto boundary between mainland China and Taiwan drawn by the United States in 1955 in the aftermath of the Chinese civil war. Both sides had largely abided by the line in the decades since.

“Pelosi’s Taipei visit has caused Beijing to lose points in diplomacy, but it helped the PLA grab an opportunity to cross the median line that divides the Taiwan Strait,” said Ni Lexiong, a political-science professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

“If the PLA’s war games become regular operations in the future, that means the mainland side has successfully scrapped the so-called median line, a move to offset Beijing’s diplomatic failure in the wake of Pelosi’s Taiwan tour.”

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A retired senior colonel and a military historian agreed, adding that the PLA had seized the chance for full-scale “real combat training” for a Taiwan contingency.

“The PLA Air Force and Navy finally got the legitimate chance to stage their close reconnaissance along the coastline of Taiwan,” the senior colonel, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity, told the South China Morning Post.