by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Baycrest/WikiCommons/CC BY-SA 2.5 DEED


CHINA HAS AGAIN launched a set of military exercises around Taiwan. The drills take place around the north, east, and south of Taiwan, in the Taiwan Straits, and around outlying islands of Taiwan and are titled “Joint Sword,” signifying that these drills are following up from Chinese military drills in April 2023.

More broadly, Chinese military exercises around Taiwan in recent memory take place in the wake of the drills that China launched following US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August 2022. China used the trip, which attracted international media attention at the time, as a pretext to escalate military activity around Taiwan.

The timing of China’s drills is significant. Namely, the drills take place a mere three days after the presidential inauguration of Lai Ching-te as president. Reactions by China to Lai’s inaugural address were quick. Namely, although Lai sought to strike an attitude of moderation, and emphasize that he would maintain the pro-status quo position of the Tsai administration, China framed his comments as dangerously pro-independence.

China’s aim with the timing of the drills, then, is to frame them as a reaction to Lai’s comments, as though because Lai’s comments were dangerously pro-independence, they therefore provoked China into a military reaction.

In reality, this is not the case. Naval vessels such as those used in the exercise do not simply teleport into place. Rather, drills of such scale need to be planned in advance. As such, they were planned before Lai’s inauguration, and would have occurred regardless of what he had said.

As with any of its military drills around Taiwan, China aims to send a signal to both Taiwan that military threats against Taiwan will continue if the DPP remains in power, as well as to the US and other western powers that reiterate its claims over Taiwan–as well China’s claim that it is willing to use military force to achieve what it frames as reunification.

Indeed, in spite of the fact that Lai’s comments were perceived as routine and pro-status quo in Taiwan, there were still some commentators in Washington DC and elsewhere that perceived them as dangerously pro-independence. This illustrates Washington’s fickleness, as well as the recurring pattern in which the US misapprehends local contexts. It is, of course, Taiwan that has a better read of the valence of Lai’s comments and the political atmosphere they are made in rather than afar, as well as directly in the line of fire from Chinese threats.

Yet China is likely to weaponize such comments as part of efforts to frame Lai as a provocateur in cross-strait relations. This would be with the aim of not only attempting to attack Lai in terms of his standing in domestic politics in Taiwan, but to increase skepticism of Lai in the US. This would be with the aim of weakening ties between the US and Taiwan. Even if the US is not likely to cut off support for Taiwan, if it views Lai as a potentially loose cannon, that affects the kind of aid that Taiwan would receive, and is an obstacle to cooperation.

Reactions from the Taiwanese public have been muted. Taiwan generally does not react strongly to Chinese military drills, seeing as Taiwan has become inured to such threats after decades. This lack of a reaction also returns to the failure of China’s communication strategy, in that military threats come to be perceived as a repetitive news item, with no sense of a progressively escalating threat, because of how often they take place. The general public is not attentive to the means by which China seeks to convey escalating threats, something that is generally only perceived by experts.

But the inclusion of outlying islands in the purview of such drills may be timed to take place with the series of efforts to influence Taiwan through outlying islands that China has undertaken since February, when two Chinese fishermen died after a collision with a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel after intruding into Kinmen territorial waters. China used the incident as justification to increase grey zone activity around Kinmen, including searching tourist ferries from Taiwan, and holding a Taiwanese fisher who was an active duty member of the military that drifted into China after engine troubles. China also announced that it would allow for the resumption of group tourism to Matsu and a new pass for Matsu residents to use in China, showing that economic outreach to Taiwan continues, with the attempt to use outlying islands of Taiwan for this purpose.

Even if the Taiwanese public has not reacted to the drills as representing a sense of threat, this does not mean that Taiwanese are not concerned about the threat from China. Protests against the KMT over new prosecutorial powers in the legislature it hopes to obtain by pushing through legislative amendments, which have drawn upwards of 30,000 participants in a matter of days, dovetail strongly with anger against the KMT for its pro-China stances.

The drills may give more ammo to those already critical of the KMT in the current protests, particularly seeing they run counter to the KMT’s claim to be able to dial back tensions with China through trips there. Perhaps KMT legislative caucus convener Fu Kun-chi’s trip to China before the inauguration with a delegation of 17 KMT lawmakers–just under 1/3rd of the KMT legislative caucus–would have been better planned to take place after the inauguration and any drills that would have followed. This perhaps points to a lack of coordination. At the same time, the KMT will use the drills to further its claim that through the legislative changes, it should be given more power over the executive branch of office through the legislature.

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