China Stages War Games Days Ahead of Taiwan Inauguration

By Christopher Bodeen 19 May 2016

BEIJING — China is staging large-scale joint war games featuring mock beach landings, helicopter assaults and tank battles along its east coast facing Taiwan, just days before the inauguration of the self-governing island’s new independence-leaning president.

The Defense Ministry said Wednesday that the air, land and sea drills were aimed at “testing and upgrading the ability to respond to security threats and complete military missions.”

The drills were “not aimed at any specific target and relevant persons shouldn’t read too much into it,” the ministry said. The statement, written in question-and-answer format, did not mention Taiwan.

China maintains a standing threat to use force to achieve its goal of absorbing Taiwan and the timing of the drills was noticed widely both in Taiwan and in China’s entirely state-controlled media.

The military drills are a sign of the sort of disruptions and threats that will descend upon the relationship if Taiwanese President-elect Tsai Ing-wen defies Beijing’s demands over the “one-China principle,” said Li Fei, Deputy Director of the Taiwan Research Institute of Xiamen University.

“The exercises are a message sent to the Taiwan independence forces and can be regarded as a warning that any indications of a movement toward independence will meet with repression,” Li said.

Without detailing the consequences, Beijing has warned that delicate relations between the sides would be destabilized unless Tsai, whose inauguration is Friday, explicitly endorses Beijing’s view that Taiwan and the mainland are both part of a single Chinese nation, which it calls the “’92 Consensus.”

The outgoing Nationalist Party government of President Ma Ying-jeou had endorsed the framework and signed a series of agreements on trade and other nonpolitical topics during its eight years in power. Tsai has said she wants such contacts to continue uninterrupted, but declined to voice her support for the “’92 Consensus” that was agreed to by negotiators from the two sides that year.

While military action is considered extremely risky, Beijing could choose to retaliate against Tsai by further limiting its participation in international organizations, luring away its remaining diplomatic allies, cutting off high-level contacts and curtailing trade and tourist exchanges.

China launched large-scale military exercises aimed at intimidating Taiwanese voters and politicians in 1995-96, an effort that had the opposite effect and resulted in the election of Lee Teng-hui as the island’s first directly elected president.

Chinese state media said the latest drills involved mock landing operations and the use of attack helicopters and tanks. The largest drills were carried out by the People’s Liberation Army’s 31st Group Army based in the city of Xiamen, which looks directly out onto the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, the China Daily newspaper said.

Armaments used included WZ-10 attack helicopters—China’s most powerful—along with ZTD-05A amphibious assault vehicles, Type-96 main battle tanks and HJ-9 anti-tank missile launchers.

In recent weeks, China’s navy has also staged a number of live-firing drills in the disputed South China Sea and deployed its massive Ukrainian Zubr military hovercraft.

The 31st Group Army is considered a front-line unit for any action regarding Taiwan and also held live-firing exercises in January, days after Tsai’s election. Those drills brought no perceptible response from Taiwan.