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China Taiwan: Beijing really doesn’t like Taiwan’s new president

Screenshot, Taiwan Air Force planes prepare to take off in response to China exercises

  • Author, Rupert Wingfield Hayes
  • Role, BBC News, Taipei

It is the second day of China’s military exercises in the skies and seas around Taiwan, with the latest drills showing how the People’s Liberation Army would surround the island on all sides with ships and planes.

It is a rehearsal for how Beijing would take the island, as it has repeatedly promised to do.

China has already established a new normal in the Taiwan Strait, steadily increasing military pressure on the self-ruled island.

So what is different about these exercises and what do they tell us?

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on, but from what Beijing has made public, the areas covered by these exercises are perhaps the largest we’ve seen so far, and include much of the Taiwan Strait, the Bashi Channel (which separates Taiwan of the Philippines) and large stretches of the Pacific along the east coast of Taiwan.

Thursday’s exercises focused on surrounding the island, simulating a large-scale attack, without the actual landing of troops, says Taiwanese military expert Chieh Chung. He believes the inclusion of all of Taiwan’s coastal islands demonstrates China’s plan to eliminate facilities that could launch a counterattack against the PLA. He also believes that this two-day drill will not be the last one Taiwan will have to endure this year, hence the name “Joint Sword 2024-A.”

Footage today shows the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) preparing for a simulated attack on major cities and ports in Taiwan. A dramatic video released by the PLA’s Eastern Command shows fleets of ships approaching Taiwan, accompanied by the words “Push!” “Surround!” “Close with key!” . Then, all of Taiwan is highlighted in orange, presumably indicating full control.

China has also released a video of a PLA colonel explaining the purpose of the exercises in politically charged language: “As we can see, we have established two exercise areas in the sea and air space near the eastern part of the island, mainly to block the escape of the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists and break out of their comfort zone,” he says.

The island’s eastern coast is home to crucial military infrastructure and, due to its proximity to Japan’s southern islands, is also a reliable resupply route for Taiwan’s allies, including the United States.

But the reality is more prosaic. On the one hand, China has published a video of a group of coast guard ships approaching within three nautical miles of a Taiwan-controlled island called Wu-Qiu. It is a small rocky outcrop off the coast of Fujian. Its only occupants are colonies of seabirds and a small garrison of Taiwanese soldiers.

On Thursday, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry searched 49 Chinese aircraft, 19 warships and seven coast guard vessels near Taiwan’s territorial waters. The ships have largely been frigates and corvettes, which are smaller and carry a lighter weapons load.

There have been no signs of Chinese heavy ships such as amphibious assault ships or aircraft carriers taking part. A real invasion fleet would require much larger ships and in much greater numbers. The last time a major amphibious assault took place near Taiwan was the US invasion of Okinawa in 1944. That US fleet had nearly 300 naval fighters, including 11 aircraft carriers (large aircraft carriers) and hundreds of troop and supply ships.

Beijing really doesn’t like Taiwan’s new president

Thursday’s military was accompanied by a tirade against the man who Beijing said had triggered it all: William Lai, the island’s new president.

The Global Times had already called him “arrogant” and “reckless”, and CCTV wrote that he “will undoubtedly be nailed to history’s pillar of shame” and criticized him for “selling the two-nation theory”.

President Lai’s alleged crime is that in his inauguration speech on Monday he used the word China to describe China. Beijing says that by doing so, Mr Lai revealed his true thinking that Taiwan is not China and that they are two different countries. In his eyes, it is an admission of his “separatist” ideology.

To outsiders all this may seem absurd. But for decades Beijing and Taipei have confused their definitions of China and whether Taiwan is part of it. Even former President Tsai was careful to refer to China in euphemistic terms such as “across the strait” or “the authorities in Beijing.”

Image source, Taiwan Coast Guard

Screenshot, A Chinese warship sails in waters near Pengjia islet in northern Taiwan on May 23.

Some academics in Taiwan will tell you that language is important and that Lai has crossed a dangerous line. Others say Beijing’s hatred of him was already set in stone and that his speech has simply offered a rhetorical justification for the latest round of intimidation.

Most agree that it does not change the basic fact that Xi Jinping wants China to control Taiwan, and the people of Taiwan emphatically do not want it.

But no one in Taiwan is particularly surprised. For them, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is quite predictable. When Lai’s DPP won a third consecutive presidential election here in early January, many wondered how and when Beijing would respond.

The obvious assumption was that it would be after Lai’s term was inaugurated with his first presidential address. So here we are, four days after President Lai’s inauguration, and Beijing has issued a response.

The main clue that none of this is spontaneous is in the preparation. No army, not even the PLA, can mobilize a drill of this scale in a matter of days.

It is also worth noting that China has so far repeatedly crossed the median line, an unofficial border that lies about 50 nautical miles from the coasts of both sides. But it has not yet crossed the contiguous zone, about 24 miles off the coast of Taiwan. This would be seen as a major escalation. And it suggests that despite the aggressive rhetoric, Beijing remains cautious.

On the streets of Taipei the response to the drills has been a collective shrug. Many will tell you that they are not worried. But that’s not entirely true. Living next to China is like living in an earthquake zone. The threat is always there and the drills are getting bigger and more dangerous, so you must be prepared for it. But you also need to move on with your life.

Despite rancorous relations between Taiwan’s ruling DPP and the opposition (they were fighting in parliament last week), the Chinese exercises have united all parties. The opposition KMT, traditionally seen as pro-China, has called on Beijing to show restraint. This is not the time when they want to be seen as friendly to Beijing.

There is a strange irony here that shows how little China’s communist leaders understand Taiwan and its people.

They have declared that military operations focus solely on “deterring and defeating pro-independence forces.”

Every time China intensifies military intimidation, support for the DPP tends to rise, and support for the “China-friendly” KMT falls. A more recent example: Months of military incursions in the run-up to January elections put Lai in the top job.

If the goal is to scare Taiwan’s people into distancing themselves from parties and leaders that challenge Beijing, it so far appears to be having the opposite effect.

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