TAIPEI, TAIWAN — China has significantly stepped up its military exercises around Taiwan at the same time it has tried to isolate it diplomatically, according to Taiwan’s minister of foreign affairs.
Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Friday that, in 2017, China conducted 47 military air and naval exercises near Taiwan, nearly quadrupling the 12 exercises conducted the year before.
“That is a new phenomenon for us to deal with,” Wu told a small group of visiting journalists. “It’s a significant increase of number of military exercises. And this military exercise will include naval exercise and air force exercises. And it just happened this morning, the Chinese were doing it again.”
The Chinese military for the first time flew Sukhoi-35 advanced fighter jets during exercises near Taiwan on Friday, while the group of foreign journalists, including from Breitbart News, were in Taipei.
The Su-35 jets from Russia would allow the Chinese to reverse-engineer its engine and other technologies but also provide them longer escort and combat patrol missions over the South China Sea.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) said in a statement that the exercise, in which aircraft flew in opposite directions around Taiwan, displayed a “new upgrade in combat capabilities,” according to Reuters.
Deputy Minister of Mainland Affairs Council Chang Tien-chin said last Monday he believes the military exercises are aimed at the United States, not Taiwan.
“The second largest power is challenging the biggest existing power, and that is the United States,” he said. “Xi Jinping’s ambition is that China to rejuvenate and become the strongest power in the world by the time of 2049.”
But experts say tensions between China and Taiwan have been rising since the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became the dominant political party in Taiwan in January 2016, and a DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, became president in May 2016.
Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the military exercises have a lot to do with the pro-independence DPP controlling both the presidency and the legislative branch.
“Now you have a government, essentially a one-party government sort of like what we have at the moment in the U.S. The president can get a lot more done when the Congress is not saying ‘no.’ So, I think that is huge because we have not had a DPP legislature before,” he said.
“When Chen Shui-bian was the DPP president back in 2000, he had to work with a KMT legislature, which most of the time said ‘no’ to what he wanted to do,” he added, referring to Taiwan’s other major political party, the Kuomingtang (KMT).
“This is very different. The previous administration under a KMT president made it very clear he would not push for Taiwan’s independence,” he added.
Chinese leadership considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province, while Taiwan leadership considers it a separate country. The dispute stems from the Chinese civil war when the Chinese nationalist government fled to Taiwan in 1949 and reestablished itself.
China has also stepped up its efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically. Beijing has succeeded in blocking Taiwan’s participation from the World Health Assembly this month in Geneva for the second year in a row.
China also succeeded this month in pressuring the Dominican Republic to cut official ties with Taiwan. Last month, China sent 36 international airlines a letter asking them to designate Taiwan as a province of China — and not a separate country — on their websites.
Still, Cheng said even if China’s efforts are aimed more at Taiwan than the U.S., it is still a cause for concern.
“Are they doing this to challenge America? No. Are they doing this to a friend of the United States, and therefore we should worry about it anyway? Yes,” he said.
The U.S. acknowledges China’s stance towards Taiwan but does not take a position on Taiwan’s status. However, the U.S. has a robust relationship with Taiwan and provides it with defense articles.
Wu said China believes that if it claims ownership over a certain territory that over time, it will become part of China.
“Taiwan is under the jurisdiction of the democratically-elected government here in Taiwan. So China cannot claim its ownership of Taiwan. It’s like, I can claim something for awhile and something will become mine — that’s just not right,” he said.
“Look at the situation in East Asia. The Chinese government not only does that to Taiwan, they also do that to East China Sea. And they also do it to the South China Sea,” he said.
“If they are successful in pushing Taiwan over, to make Taiwan part of China, then they might be able to do the same in other areas and parts of the world.”
This story has been updated.