China starts ‘punishment’ military drills around Taiwan days after island swears in new leader IMAGE

China has launched two days of large-scale military drills surrounding Taiwan in what it called “punishment” for so-called “separatist acts,” days after the self-ruling island swore in a new democratically elected leader who called on Beijing to cease its intimidation tactics.

As part of the drills, dozens of Chinese fighter jets carrying live ammunition conducted mock strikes against “high-value military targets” of the “enemy” alongside destroyers, frigates and missile speedboats, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV.

The exercises, which started early on Thursday and will encircle Taiwan, pose the first real test for newly elected Lai Ching-te as he attempts to manage relations with the island’s powerful authoritarian neighbor.

China’s ruling Communist Party says Taiwan is part of its territory, despite never having controlled it, and has vowed to take the island, by force if necessary.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said it launched joint military drills involving the army, navy, air force and rocket force in areas around Taiwan at 7.45 a.m. on Thursday.

The drills are being conducted in the Taiwan Strait – a narrow body of water separating the island from mainland China – as well as north, south and east of Taiwan. They are also taking place in areas around Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu and Dongyin, located just off China’s southeastern coast, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command said in a statement.

PLA Naval Colonel Li Xi, spokesperson for the command, called the exercises “a strong punishment for the separatist acts of Taiwan independence forces and a serious warning against interference and provocation by external forces.”

A senior official responsible for Taiwan’s security affairs told CNN that as of noon Thursday, the island detected about 30 Chinese aircraft, most of which crossed the Median Line into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). The Median Line is an informal demarcation point in the Taiwan Strait that Beijing does not recognize but until recent years had largely respected.

The Chinese military also deployed about a dozen Chinese warships around Taiwan, as well as a dozen Coast Guard vessels near Taiwan’s outlying islands, according to the official.

Taiwan has deployed its own warships to monitor the situation, the official said, adding no Chinese aircraft carrier were involved in the drills so far.

Irrational provocations’

Taiwan’s Lai is detested by Beijing as a “dangerous separatist” for championing the island’s sovereignty and distinct identity. He succeeded two-term president Tsai Ing-wen to start an unprecedented third consecutive term in power for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Beijing has denounced Lai’s inauguration speech, during which he called on China to cease its intimidation of Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has condemned China’s drills as “irrational provocations and actions that undermine regional peace and stability.”

In a statement Thursday, the ministry said it had dispatched sea, air and ground forces in response to the drills.

“We stand by with firm will and restraint. We seek no conflicts, but we will not shy away from one. We have the confidence to safeguard our national security,” it said.

Taiwan’s presidential spokeswoman Karen Kuo said in a statement: “It is regrettable to see China threatening Taiwan’s democracy and freedom and regional peace and stability with unilateral military provocations.”

“In the face of external challenges and threats, we will continue to defend democracy and have the confidence and ability to protect national security,” Kuo added.

In a statement on Thursday, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was following developments in the Taiwan Strait closely, and urged all parties to “refrain from acts that could escalate tensions in the region.”

Taiwan’s 23 million people have long become used to the threat of China’s war drills, and Thursday life continued as normal in the capital Taipei.

While Taiwanese news outlets were reporting on the Chinese drills, it was far from the only headline on their agenda, which also included recent political bust ups in the legislature, and even information on filing taxes during the tax season.

Taipei’s main stock index, the TAIEX, was 0.26 percent up in mid-afternoon trade.

Propaganda push

China’s military drills are as often as much about playing to a domestic audience as signaling intentions internationally. China’s military and state media churned out propaganda and highlighted coverage of the drills, which remained a top trending topic Thursday on tightly controlled Chinese social media platforms.

Footage of the drills released by the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command showed a guided missile frigate, the Nantong, and a pilot climbing into a fighter jet at a military base.

The rhetoric coming from Chinese state media and the PLA portrayed the exercises as a practice run for encircling Taiwan, and even threatening small outlying islands that lie close to China’s mainland.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV said multiple destroyer and frigate formations of the Eastern Theater Command Navy “maneuvered at high speed in multiple directions in the waters surrounding Taiwan, creating an omnidirectional approach in pushing toward the island.”

Meanwhile, the command’s air force dispatched dozens of fighter jets to Taiwan’s main island and outlying islands, according to CCTV.

“Under the support and cover of the Army and the Rocket Force, multiple types of aircraft were organized and loaded with live ammunition, flew to the predetermined airspace to establish multiple strike positions, and coordinated with destroyers, frigates, and missile speedboats to simulate attacking the ‘enemy’s’ high-value military targets and reconnaissance and patrol aircraft,” the report said.

In another report, CCTV published a series of posters of what it calls “the magic weapons killing separatists” promoting Taiwan independence.

They include the J-20 and J-16 fighter jets, the Type 052 destroyer and Type 071 amphibious transport dock, and the Dongfeng ballistic missile. Though the report did not specify if they were being used in the ongoing drills.

Taiwan President Lai Ching-te visits a military camp in Taoyuan, Taiwan, on Thursday.

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