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Why is China conducting 'punishment' military drills around Taiwan? What does it mean?

Taiwan detected 49 Chinese warplanes and 19 navy vessels around the island nation on the second day of Beijing's so-called "punishment" drills. The Chinese military said the exercises were launched to test their ability to "seize power" and punish Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Taipei Published on: May 24, 2024 15:43 IST
China, China punishment drills, Taiwan
Image Source : REUTERS A Chinese vessel seen in an undisclosed location near Taiwan

Taipei: Taiwan on Friday tracked dozens of Chinese warplanes and navy vessels off its coasts as Beijing entered the second day of its "punishment" military drills in response to the island's new leadership. The Chinese military held the new drills to test their ability to "seize power" and control key areas, as part of exercises it said were launched to "punish" Taiwan's newly-inaugurated President Lai Ching-te.

Footage showed Chinese fighter jets taking off and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) participating in the combat training exercise as the Chinese forces completely surrounded Taiwan. The two days of drills in the Taiwan Strait and around groups of Taiwan-controlled islands near the Chinese coast started just three days after Lai took office.

The Eastern Theatre Command of the PLA said the exercises, dubbed "Joint Sword - 2024A", were to "test the ability to jointly seize power, launch joint attacks and occupy key areas". However, the drills so far did not appear to evoke any major concern from Taiwan's 23 million people, who have been under the threat of Chinese invasion since the bloody civil war in 1949.

What is China doing near Taiwan?

Taiwan's defence ministry tracked 49 warplanes and 19 navy vessels, as well as Chinese coast guard vessels, and 35 of the planes flew across the median of the Taiwan Strait, the de facto boundary between the sides, over a 24-hour period from Thursday to Friday. According to a senior Taiwanese security official, Chinese fighters conducted mock attacks on foreign vessels near the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan from the Philippines.

The official further said several Chinese coastguard boats also conducted "harassment" drills off Taiwan's east coast, including mock inspections of civilian ships. The Chinese theatre command showed an animated video on Friday on its WeChat social media account of missiles being launched at Taiwan from the ground, air and sea, which then slam into the cities of Taipei, Kaohsiung and Hualien in balls of flame.

Beijing's aggression has caused Taiwan's armed forces to mobilise in order to monitor and shadow Chinese forces. Taiwan's defence ministry on Friday published pictures of F-16s, armed with live missiles, patrolling the skies. The closest Chinese aircraft got to Taiwan's coast was 40 nautical miles (74 km) from the northern city, and navy base, of Keelung, according to a map the ministry provided.

Why is China conducting 'punishment' drills?

China views democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to reclaim it by force. Much to the chagrin of China, Lai-Ching-te of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the January presidential elections and took oath earlier this week. Lai has been denounced as a "separatist" by the Chinese government.

On Monday, Lai in his inauguration speech called on China to stop its military and political threats, saying that peace was the only choice and that Beijing had to respect the choice of the Taiwanese people. He also repeated a call for talks with China, which has been rebuffed several times. "We also want to declare this to the world: Taiwan makes no concessions on democracy and freedom," he said.

China responded by saying Lai had sent "dangerous signals" that sought to undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. "Taiwan independence is incompatible with peace in the Taiwan Strait," said China's Taiwan Affairs Office. "No matter how the situation on the island changes, no matter who is in power, it will not change the fact that the two sides belong to the same China."

Taiwan has faced pressure from China, including regular air force and navy activities near the island, since the election victory by Lai, 64, who is widely known by his English name, William. Lai, who took over from Tsai Ing-wen having served as her vice president for the past four years, said people must be realistic about the threat and Taiwan must show its determination to defend itself. China has launched the two-day drills to deter any actions towards seeking independence.

What happens next?

"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," said Taiwan's defence ministry at the start of the two-day military drills. Marine and coast guard vessels, air and ground-based missile units have all been put on alert, particularly around the Taiwan-controlled island chains of Kinmen and Matsu located in close proximity to China.

“Facing external challenges and threats, we will continue to maintain the values of freedom and democracy,” Taiwan's new President Lai Ching-te told sailors and top security officials on Thursday as he visited a marine base in Taoyuan, just south of the capital, Taipei. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Thursday defended the joint military drills surrounding Taiwan as legitimate and necessary and fully in line with international law and practice. 

Taiwan is well-used to China's military threats, and the latest drills have caused no undue alarm on the island, with life carrying on as normal. Taiwan's media has also given a lot of time to ongoing drama about contested parliament reforms that have brought thousands of people onto the streets to protest.

Analysts, regional diplomats and senior Taiwan officials noted the scale of the drills so far was smaller than similar exercises in 2022 and were widely anticipated by Taiwanese and foreign officials, but they still raised the risk of accidents or miscalculations. It is unclear whether these drills will lead to any large-scale conflict, although they are expected to continue as China has never renounced its claim over the island nation.

(with inputs from agencies)

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