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France joins China navy drills

A French warship docks at the PLA's eastern Chinese port city of Qingdao.

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Wen Jiabao

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Chinese naval vessels and a visiting French fleet are taking part in joint military exercises described as its biggest ever with a foreign power, China's state-run media has reported.

The search and rescue naval drills held Tuesday off the northeastern port of Qingdao come ahead of Taiwan presidential elections this weekend.

China has a history of flexing its military might ahead of Taiwan polls.

Beijing has been especially critical of the March 20 election which will showcase Taiwan's first ever referendum -- something China views as a provocative step towards independence.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and says that any moves towards independence would be met with military aggression.

Ahead of the island's first presidential elections in 1996, China staged massive war games and military exercises across the Taiwan Strait, involving land, sea and air forces that staged mock beach invasions near Taiwanese-held islands close to the mainland.

China also carried out missile tests, prompting the United States to send two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.

The exercises were seen as attempts to intimidate voters into casting their ballot against former president Lee Teng-hui because Beijing feared he would lead the island to a formal declaration of independence.

Lee was re-elected in a landslide and the flashpoint was only defused by pledging to seek peace with Beijing.

Since then, the Democratic People's Party, currently led by President Chen Shui-bian has come into power.

The DPP has favored Taiwan's independence but Chen says the referendum vote on China's missile threat to Taiwan doesn't constitute any push towards nationhood.

Beijing, though, views the referendum as another step towards independence but has so far shied away from any military displays like it did in 1996.

The state-run Xinhua hailed Tuesday's exercises with the French warships as the "most comprehensive" ever with a foreign force.

They included ship and shipboard helicopter maneuvers and communication drills, as well as replenishing and refueling drills at sea, Xinhua reported.

Involved in the drills are the French anti-submarine warfare destroyer Latouche-Treville and light frigate Commandant Birotplan with a combined crew of 322.

The Chinese guided missile destroyer Harbin -- one of China's most advanced surface combatants -- and the Hongze Lake supply ship will join the French vessels.

China held its first ever joint naval exercises last year with separate drills with Pakistan and India off Shanghai.

Those exercises built on a fostering of contacts with other nations, including the United States.

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