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China launches ‘punishment’ war games around Taiwan

A furious China launched “punishment” drills around Taiwan in what it said was a response to “separatist acts”, sending up heavily armed warplanes and staging mock attacks as state media denounced newly inaugurated President Lai Ching-te.

The exercises, in the Taiwan Strait and around groups of Taiwan-controlled islands beside the Chinese coast, come just three days after Lai took office, a man Beijing detests as a “separatist”.

China, which views democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory, denounced Lai’s inauguration speech on Monday, in which he urged it to stop its threats, saying the two sides of the strait were “not subordinate to each other”.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Lai “disgraceful“.

Lai has repeatedly offered talks with China but has been rebuffed. He says only Taiwan’s people can decide their future and rejects Beijing’s sovereignty claims.

The Eastern Theatre Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said it had started joint military drills, involving the army, navy, air force and rocket force, in areas around Taiwan at 7:45 a.m. (2345 GMT).

The drills are being held in the Taiwan Strait, the north, south and east of Taiwan, as well as areas around the Taiwan-controlled islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu and Dongyin, the command said in a statement, the first time China’s exercises have included areas round these islands.

State media said China sent out dozens of fighter jets carrying live missiles and conducted mock strikes, along with warships, of high-value military targets.

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Taiwan’s defence ministry said 15 Chinese navy ships, 16 coast guard and 33 aircraft were involved, but no live fire drills were held in any areas close to Taiwan.

The drills, dubbed “Joint Sword – 2024A”, are set to run for two days. However, unlike a similar “Joint Sword” exercise in April last year, these drills are tagged “A”, opening the door to potential follow-ups.

Taiwan’s defence ministry condemned the drills, saying that it had sent forces to areas around the island, with its air defences and land-based missile forces tracking targets, and adding that it was confident it could protect its territory.

“The launch of military exercises on this occasion not only does not contribute to the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait, it also highlights (China’s) militaristic mentality,” the ministry said.

A Chinese warship navigates on waters near Pengjia Islet in northern Taiwan, May 23, 2024. via Taiwan Coast Guard

Taiwan’s presidential office expressed regret that China was threatening the island’s democratic freedoms and regional peace and stability with its “unilateral military provocations”, but said Taiwan could ensure its security.

“I have confidence in the military,” Lai said at a military base in Taoyuan, near Taipei, the capital. “I also ask all my compatriots to rest assured.”

China’s state broadcaster CCTV said Lai’s inauguration speech was “extremely harmful” and China’s countermeasures are “legitimate, legal and necessary”.

Lai’s speech was a confession of a desire for Taiwan’s independence and undermined peace and stability across the strait, it said.

Taiwan’s future can only be decided by China’s 1.4 billion people, not just Taiwan’s 23 million people, it added.

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Over the past four years, China’s military has carried out almost daily activities near Taiwan, and last staged large-scale war games near the island in 2023 and 2022.

One senior Taiwan official, who sought anonymity as the matter is sensitive, said this time around China was essentially “putting a name” on its regular activities, rather than a dramatic escalation.

Those drills include crossing the strait’s median line, which had previously served as an unofficial barrier, and staging mock attacks on Taiwanese and foreign vessels, the official added.

People look at a Taiwan Air Force Mirage 2000-5 aircraft as it prepares to land at Hsinchu Air Base in Hsinchu, Taiwan, May 23, 2024. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

NO SURPRISE

Another senior Taiwan official told Reuters the drills were part of a scenario Taiwan had anticipated.

In the run-up to the inauguration, Taiwan officials had said they were keeping watch for Chinese military movements.

The drills focus on joint sea-air combat-readiness patrols, precision strikes on key targets, and integrated operations inside and outside the island chain to test the “joint real combat capabilities” of the forces, China’s military said.

“This is also a strong punishment for the separatist acts of Taiwan independence forces and a stern warning against the interference and provocation by external forces,” the command added.

Chinese state media published a map of the drill zones, in five areas all around Taiwan and the islands Taiwan controls near the Chinese coast.

Taiwan officials told Reuters those areas were outside Taiwan’s contiguous zone, which is 24 nautical miles from the main island’s coast.

One of the officials said China had not announced any no-fly zones, nor had Taiwan observed any large-scale movements of China’s ground and rocket forces.

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Su Tzu-yun, a research fellow at Taiwan’s top military think tank, the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, said that although the drills would only last two days, their scope was large relative to previous exercises, as they included Taiwan’s outlying islands.

This is designed to demonstrate China’s ability to control the seas and prevent the involvement of foreign forces, he said.

“The political signals here are greater than the military ones,” he added.

There was no sign of alarm in Taiwan, where people are long used to Chinese military activity. The benchmark index (.TWII), currently running at historic highs, and closed up 0.3% on Thursday.

A central bank official told Reuters the foreign exchange market was operating as normal, with no abnormal entry or exit of foreign capital.

In August 2022, China launched live-fire military exercises around Taiwan immediately after a visit, much condemned by Beijing, by former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That series of exercises, the scale of which was unprecedented, ran for four days, followed by several days of additional drills.

By BERNARD ORR and YIMOU LEE

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