Adam Ni, China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney.
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What is going on? China’s military has started military exercises in waters off Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. Exercises will run until Friday. There is no indication yet on what military units are involved, but most likely all branches of the PLA are participating.
These drills are significant because they are conducted in two areas, in both South and East China Seas at the same time, which is more realistic for a scenario involving conflict against Taiwan with US intervention.
In addition to raising combat readiness, these drills are a signal to Taiwan of Beijing’s willingness to use force to prevent the self-governing island from declaring formal independence. And it is a warning to others, especially the US, of Beijing’s growing military muscle.
China’s new defense white paper, released last week, reiterated Beijing’s willingness to use force against Taiwan: “[China] make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures [against Taiwan independence]”.
In recent years, China has become more blunt about its military coercive power with frequent exercises targeting Taiwan. According to the white paper, “[b]y sailing ships and flying aircraft around Taiwan, the armed forces send a stern warning to the “Taiwan independence” separatist forces”.
Note that the drills underway are not a direct response to US arms sale to Taiwan because PLA has an annual exercise schedule that is set well in advance.
Military coercion will be an important part of Beijing’s strategy as we move towards Taiwan’s election in 2020. Beijing wants to put pressure on Taiwanese politicians and the Taiwan public without going so far as for it to backfire (as was the case in 1995/1996).