Chinese President Xi Jinping has sent a clear message of Beijing’s disapproval over growing ties between the United States and Taiwan by ordering live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait.
The drills, to be held this coming Wednesday, will mark the first time the Chinese Navy has held drills with live ammunition in the strait since September 2015, in the lead-up to the self-ruled island’s presidential election.
Prior to those elections, relations between the two were at a high point after Xi met with then-President Ma Ying-jeou, the first such meeting in history between leaders of the two governments.
But since then, tensions between China and the island it views as a breakaway province have become strained under Ma’s successor, President Tsai Ing-wen.
The new Trump administration has sought closer ties to President Tsai’s government, angering Beijing by signing two deals in the past month to tighten ties with the island, including a travel act which will allow more official visits between the US and Taipei.
“(China) wants to highlight that the Chinese navy is ever ready and secondly, it is a signal to the government in Taipei you better not go further,” Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Maritime Security Program, told CNN.
The planned live-fire exercises follow a massive show of force by the PLA Navy on April 10 and 11, which conducted the country’s largest military drills ever in the South China Sea.
Chinese President Xi personally reviewed the troops himself from the deck of the Chinese destroyer Changsha on Thursday, speaking to the troops about the need for the navy to become “world-class.”
Responding to the news of the upcoming live-fire drills, the Taiwanese Defense Military said in a statement the drills were taking place in a “routine” military zone and reiterated their national army could protect the island from any threat. “Our people please rest assured,” the statement said.
Long history of confrontation
Taiwan has been self-governed since a bloody civil war ended in 1949, forcing the defeated nationalists to flee to the island and continue to rule under the banner of the Republic of China.
Though both Taipei and Beijing view the island as part of China, neither government recognizes the legitimacy of the opposing side, and there is a strong pro-indepedence sentiment within the current ruling party in Taiwan.
This prospect is anathema to Beijing, prompting it to warn that it could retake the island by force if necessary.
The two governments have a long history of international brinksmanship in their efforts to gain economic opportunities and diplomatic support from governments around the world.
The United States maintains close unofficial links with the island and provides them with arms under the Taiwan Relations Act, but it maintains formal diplomatic relations only with Beijing.
While Washington does not challenge Communist China’s claim over Taiwan, the official US policy simply states that people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait recognize there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.
But under US President Donald Trump, the United States’ has appeared enthusiastic to move closer to Taiwan, a move which has caused deep concern in Beijing.
“Every inch of our great motherland’s territory cannot be separated from China,” President Xi said during a nationalistic speech at the National People’s Congress in March, drawing huge applause.
China’s state media has followed Xi’s tone, with the tabloid Global Times writing in an editorial that the mainland needed to “prepare for a possible military clash.”
“Despite a number of people being against reunification by force, the number that is pro-force and anticipating a cross-Straits war is growing unprecedentedly,” the editorial said.
Taiwan holds drills against invasion
While Beijing has only grown more powerful in recent years, due to record economic growth and military modernization, the Taiwanese population has grown less and less interested in reunification with the mainland.
“That’s a dangerous trend,” Richard McGregor, senior fellow at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, told CNN.
“(Taiwan’s) not going to cede the lifestyle and virtual independence they’ve got now, so for China it gets more and more difficult in some respects.”
One day after the PLA drills were announced, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen reviewed the island’s navy during exercises off their eastern coast, simulating an invasion of Taiwan.
According to Taiwanese state media CNA, it was the first time Tsai has been on a warship since she took power in May 2016.
Boarding a Kidd-class destroyer, Tsai reviewed the Taiwanese navy’s combat readiness and rapid response capabilities, state media said.
The developments follow a surprise move by the Trump administration to facilitate direct communication with Tsai in December 2016, the first known contact between a US president and a Taiwanese leader since the US broke diplomatic relations with the island in 1979.
Though that call created diplomatic ruptures with China, in recent months Trump has looked to build closer ties between Washington and Taipei.
Earlier this month, the US administration authorized American manufacturers to sell submarine technology to Taiwan, drawing praise in Taipei and fury in Beijing.
On April 12, US Secretary of State designate Mike Pompeo reiterated the importance of US arms sales to Taiwan during his confirmation hearings in Washington.
Issuing a word of caution, Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at CSIS, said China’s forthcoming military drills were likely planned months in advance and were unlikely to be tied to recent events.
“(But) it is a useful signal, whether it was intended to be as such, to both Taiwan and the United States, to not challenge China’s core interests on sovereignty and not to challenge red lines when it comes to Taiwan,” she said.
China’s military might grows
The confrontational drills in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait come as Chinese President Xi is at the height of his power, only a month after the government removed term limits allowing him to effectively rule for life.
Now China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, Xi has set his sights on reasserting his country’s power on the international stage, including building a combat-ready military and navy.
McGregor said 20 years ago Beijing’s navy would have been vulnerable in the Taiwan Strait – now, accompanied by the country’s first aircraft carrier the Liaoning, it was no longer a problem.
“Now they have the military capabilities, they want to display them … they want to display their power,” he said.
China would vastly prefer a peaceful reunification of Taiwan, McGregor said, due to the sheer size of the undertaking and number of risks involved.
Not least of which, if war were to break out between Beijing and Taipei, there’s no guarantee whether or not Washington would join the island’s defense.
“You can’t simply take Taiwan over … (China’s) trained for it, they’ve built their military for it but they sure as hell don’t want to do it because how risky it is,” he said.
But as China’s military strength continues to grow, including its second aircraft carrier which will go to sea trials within a month, the balance of power could shift in Beijing’s favor, Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Lingnan University, told CNN in March.
“After 20 years, by 2040, if China’s achieved military parity then it may be feasible if they could win at a low cost,” he said.
This piece has been amended to better reflect the US’ public position on the “One China” policy.
CNN’s Steven Jiang, Joshua Berlinger and Steve George contributed to this write.