Consequences of Chinese war exercises around Taiwan

Members of the Taiwanese military conduct routine exercises at Liaoluo Port in Kinmen on May 24, 2024. China surrounded Taiwan on May 23 with naval ships and military aircraft in war games aimed at punishing the self-ruled island after the new president vowed to defend democracy. (Photo by I-HWA CHENG/AFP via Getty Images)

I-hwa Cheng | Episode | Getty Images

China's latest military exercises around Taiwan risk escalating tensions between the two countries, but war remains unlikely, political observers say.

Beijing warned that the two-day drills, which continued on Friday, were aimed at punishing the island's new president, Lai Ching-te, for his “hostility and provocations.”

The escalation comes just days after Lai was sworn in on Monday. In his inaugural speech, Lai strongly urged China to stop its political and military threats against the self-governing island.

Chinese state news agency Xinhua said Taiwan's new leader took “an even riskier and radical approach than his predecessors” in his debut speech. The exercises are “legitimate, timely and entirely necessary” as acts of “Taiwan independence” in any form “cannot be tolerated”, it added.

“This feels like a prelude to more and bigger military exercises to come,” Wen-Ti Sung, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, said in a message on X.

“This is a signal to shape international stories. The real 'punishment' against Taiwan may still have to come, because it takes time.”

Beijing considers democratically governed Taiwan part of its territory, while Chinese President Xi Jinping has previously done so said reunification with the mainland was 'a historical inevitability'.

China's Ministry of National Defense said the exercises called the Joint Sword-2024Awere a “strong punishment” for the “separatist forces seeking 'independence'.”

The exercises will focus on “joint capture of comprehensive battlefield control and joint precision strikes against key targets,” the report said.

Chinas The Eastern Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) also said this it conducted naval, land, air, and anti-submarine attacks in the airspace and waters north and south of Taiwan Island.

In answer, Taiwan was on high alert and the coast guard sent patrol vessels to monitor Chinese military movements.

'Irrational provocations'

Political observers emphasize that the latest escalation sends a political signal that Beijing's stance towards Taiwan could harden under the leadership of Lai – who has labeled China as a “stubborn fighter for Taiwan's independence' and a dangerous separatist.

While signals before the inauguration pointed to a more muted response, “Beijing appears shocked by Lai's affirmative language on Taiwanese sovereignty and identity,” Eurasia analysts said.

In his speech on Monday, Lai said Taiwan's constitution makes it clear that the Republic of China – Taiwan's formal name – and the People's Republic of China “are not subordinate to each other.”

He added that all political parties must oppose “annexation and protect sovereignty.”

China's top diplomat Wang Yi criticized Lai on Tuesday, saying that “no matter what tricks they play, they cannot prevent China from eventually achieving full reunification.” state media reported.

Taiwan's new president, Lai Ching-te, has been sworn in

Taiwan's Ministry of Defense has condemned the Chinese exercises 'irrational provocations', that undermine regional peace and stability.

“This pretext for conducting military exercises not only does not contribute to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, but also emphasizes its hegemonic nature,” the ministry said.

While the PLA exercises have not risen to the level of China's response to former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the island in August 2022, they did include unprecedented Coast Guard patrols around several Taiwan-controlled offshore islands, the analysts pointed out of Eurasia.

“Fujian Coast Guard vessels this week patrolled within 2.8 and 3 nautical miles of Wuqiu and Dongyin Islands respectively, entering their 'forbidden waters' for the first time,” they said.

US-China Relations

Under Xi, China has increased diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Taiwan as the island strengthens informal ties with the United States.

Xi told US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the APEC leaders' summit in November that Taiwan would always be the “most important and sensitiveproblem in China-US relations.

U.S. politics will also impact cross-Strait relations, noted Gabriel Wildau, director of Teneo Intelligence.

“Tensions would likely rise further if Republicans win control of both houses of the US Congress in the November elections, regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election,” he added.

Taiwan's new president must keep strategy on cross-strait relations consistent, says professor

Moreover, as Lai becomes more confident in his new role as president, he may “become emboldened” to move further away from the relatively cautious stance of his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen and “act on his pro-independence instincts,” Wildau pointed out .

While a war over Taiwan remains unlikely in the next decade, the frequency and intensity with which Beijing uses these familiar military tools is likely to increase, observers say.

The latest exercises illustrate that cross-strait relations have entered a “volatile period”, Eurasia analysts said.

But Beijing will likely “desist from actions that would jeopardize U.S. and Chinese stabilization efforts on the Taiwan issue, at least through the U.S. elections,” she added.

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