China to begin large-scale military exercise ‘tailored for Taiwan separatists’ in East China Sea

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

China reportedly began a six-day, large-scale, live-fire military drill in an area of the East China Sea “similar in size to the island of Taiwan” on Wednesday, according to state-run media, amid growing friction between Taipei and Beijing.

In a report headlined “PLA drill in East China Sea ‘tailored for Taiwan separatists,’ ” the hawkish Global Times tabloid alluded to the exercise as being a message to Taipei, calling it a “joint operation with high complexity” designed “to simulate real combat.”

The military drills come amid heightened tensions between Taiwan and China, which has warned that it will defend — by force if necessary — its “One China” principle under which the self-ruling island is seen as part of China’s own territory, awaiting reunification.

In a statement late Tuesday, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said that the military has a firm grasp of the activities and was monitoring the Chinese movements closely. It said the “annual exercises” were not unusual and posed no threat to Taiwan’s safety.

China has bolstered 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.

The heightened tensions have even seen the U.S. Navy dispatch two warships through the strait earlier this month for the first time in about a year. Although the U.S. does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it is the island state’s most powerful ally and top arms supplier.

Wednesday’s exercises had been scheduled to begin at 8 a.m., and conclude at 6 p.m. on July 23, according to the report. Citing a notice released by the Zhejiang Maritime Safety Administration on Monday, the Global Times report said that unrelated vessels would be prohibited from entering the designated live-fire drill area, which extends from sea areas close to the port of Zhoushan, in Zhejiang Province, to sea areas east of Wenzhou, also in Zhejiang.

Quoting military expert Song Zhongping, the report also said the drill was designed as a warning to “Taiwan independence” forces.

“The drill’s main objective is to send a serious warning to Taiwan separatists,” Song was quoted as saying.

A separate, unidentified military expert told the newspaper that the East China Sea would be one of the main battlefields if conflict broke out between Beijing and Taipei. The expert called the waterway “key to solving the Taiwan question and other disputed island issues” — a thinly veiled reference to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. China also claims the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu.

China’s hostility toward Taiwan has grown since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the island’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

Beijing suspects Tsai wants to push for formal independence, which would cross a red line for Communist Party leaders in China, although Tsai has said she wants to maintain the status quo and is committed to ensuring peace.

Beijing has also managed to deplete Taipei’s diplomatic allies, luring away four since Tsai came to power and leaving it with only 18 countries worldwide that recognize it contrary to China’s wishes.

China has also been angered by recent warming relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, after Trump signed legislation paving the way for mutual visits by top American officials and the U.S. government green-lighted a license required to sell cutting-edge submarine technology to Taipei.

The U.S. State Department has reportedly requested the deployment of a detachment of marines to help safeguard new facilities at the American Institute in Taiwan, Washington’s de facto consulate in lieu of formal diplomatic ties, in Taipei. U.S. Marines usually guard missions in countries with which Washington has formal diplomatic ties.