A vessel from the PLA's South Sea Fleet leaves its home port of Zhanjiang in Guangdong province en route to Djibouti. Photo: Chinese Navy
A vessel from the PLA's South Sea Fleet leaves its home port of Zhanjiang in Guangdong province en route to Djibouti. Photo: Chinese Navy

In the pleasant old port town of Tamsui in Taiwan, couples flocked over the weekend to enjoy street food and stroll on Lover’s Bridge. Few were willing to risk ruining the romantic atmosphere by discussing air strikes in Syria, North Korean nuclear proliferation or impending trade wars with China.

Yet just across the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy was busy preparing to hold live-fire military drills on Wednesday off Quanzhou in Fujian province.

The drills on Wednesday will take place within a 162-square-kilometer no-go zone, some 20km from the coast and about 40km from Taiwan’s Kinmen (Quemoy) islands. The exercises will be the first by China in these waters since 2015, and come just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping conducted the largest review of the PLA Navy in the history of the People’s Republic, involving 48 warships, 76 aircraft and more than 10,000 sailors and soldiers.

While the review and military exercises may have been planned months in advance, the drills come at an anxious time given recent activity in the South China Sea. China sailed its sole aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait last month, and has been busy installing communications-jamming equipment on Mischief Reef, one of its artificial islands.

On April 10, the US Navy followed suit, sailing one of its aircraft carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, through the South China Sea. The US carrier met up the next day with the Australian long-range guided-missile frigate HMAS Anzac and Japanese destroyer JS Akizuki for port visits in the Philippines.

Last Friday in Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen surveyed the combat readiness of her navy during a simulated response to invading forces. Tsai boarded the guided-missile equipped Kee Lung destroyer – her first time on a warship since taking office in May 2016.

Urging calm

In light of the increasing militarization of the South China Sea, and the increasing threats to Taiwan, some geopolitical analysts are calling for caution. Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, urged Taipei not to overreact to China’s military drills on Wednesday, saying: “Taipei should remain calm, and not look for ways to retaliate that would ratchet up tension.”

Former US defense secretary William Perry, in Taiwan on a book tour, counseled Taipei last Friday, “Don’t read something into it that might or might not be there,” adding, “If they call it a drill, accept it as a drill.” Perry suggested that Taipei “play cool” and added: “I don’t see any basis for believing that China is trying to stimulate a military action on Taiwan.”

Perry is no stranger to the Taiwan Strait – as secretary of defense from 1994-1997 under Bill Clinton, he urged the president to dispatch two aircraft carriers to waters near the Taiwan Strait during a 1996 missile crisis.

But while the Chinese military drill may not be intended to stimulate a military action on Taiwan, it may simulate some elements of a military action on Taiwan. Beijing and Taipei are aware that April is one of the best months in which to invade Taiwan, according to Ian Easton, research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat.

Peng Sheng-chu, director general of Taiwan’s National Security Bureau, however, plays down any threat, arguing that mainland China’s military exercise will involve a troop complement roughly the size of a battalion and will be restricted to a small area.

Despite the provocative nature of military drills in the Taiwan Strait amid growing geopolitical tensions, cooler heads should prevail for now, with Taipei maintaining its “no provoking yet no surrendering” policy. The military drills will likely pass without major incident – merely intended by Xi to boost military morale, secure popular support, and create insecurity in Taiwan.

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.

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