Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was on hand for a military drill on Friday, a day after China held the largest naval drill in its history in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
China also indicated this week that it will hold live-fire drills in the Straits of Taiwan.
The South China Sea has been lively this week as China held three days of naval exercises, beginning near the massive submarine base in Hainan province and rolling into live-fire drills that included China’s only operational aircraft carrier to date, the Liaoning.
“Hainan is the starting point for China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ while the South China Sea has the most important strategic sea waters for China to project its maritime presence and influence,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie told the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
“Beijing wants to tell Washington that the Chinese navy is capable of defending the waters relating to its core national interests,” Li added.
The SCMP also speculates that the Chinese drills were meant to impress attendees at the Boao Forum for Asia, an economic conference where Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke on Tuesday. Xi oversaw part of the naval exercise in person, saying China’s need for naval power has “never been more pressing.”
Also conducting exercises in the South China Sea this week was the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Officials and journalists from the Philippines were on board as the carrier launched and recovered fighters, helicopters, and reconnaissance aircraft.
“What we see now is a show of force and a counter show of force in the South China Sea,” former Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez said of the competing Chinese and American demonstrations.
Taiwan held its own exercises on Friday, with President Tsai watching from the destroyer Kee Lung. It was the first time she has observed a drill from aboard one of the warships involved, much as Chinese President Xi’s inspection this week was the first time he has been aboard the aircraft carrier Liaoning since it was declared combat-ready.
“I believe our countrymen will have great faith in the military’s combat capabilities and its determination to defend our country after today’s drill,” Tsai said in a press conference on the destroyer.
“We are very confident of our military,” she said. She advised reporters not to “over-read” the exercise as a military competition with China.
On Thursday, the Chinese navy announced that it will hold live-fire drills in the straits of Taiwan next Wednesday, the first such exercise since 2015. A warning was issued to commercial shipping interests to avoid entering the area during the exercise.
The South China Morning Post described Beijing’s announcement as a “surprise” intended to “warn Taiwan and show support for Russia” as tensions grow worse in Syria.
“There is a good possibility that these military drills were planned many months ago, but they serve as a useful warning to Taiwan and the U.S. not to cross Chinese red lines. Taipei should remain calm, and not look for ways to retaliate that would ratchet up tension,” advised Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as quoted by the Financial Times.
The Tsai administration seems to be following that advice. The Taiwanese only mildly protested China’s announcement of live-fire drills. Officials spoke generally of the need to enhance Taiwan’s “crisis management” systems due to “the growth of China’s military activities.”
When Tsai was asked on Friday if Taiwan’s naval exercise was meant as a response to China’s drills, she told reporters not to “over-read” the situation and described China’s upcoming live-fire drill as a “routine drill that our military will fully monitor and has made relevant preparations” for.
Tsai also said that her scheduled trip to Swaziland next week would not be affected by China’s activities in the Straits of Taiwan.
On the other hand, China’s state-run Global Times was furious, hissing that Taiwan was taking a huge gamble by holding exercises that pointlessly antagonize Beijing when everyone knows the Chinese military has “abundant capability” to deal a “decisive blow to Taiwan independence” whenever it wishes.
The Global Times said China’s live-fire drills next week are meant as a “clear warning against recent pro-independence activities on the island.”
“Secessionists should not fantasize that the U.S. will come to their rescue, even though the U.S. had passed the Taiwan Travel Act,” the editorial warned. “We believe that if the mainland were to take a military strike against ‘Taiwan-independence’ forces, Washington would have no effective means other than protest.”