China launches military drills around Taiwan as stern warning
DECCAN CHRONICLE | DC Correspondent
BEIJING: China launched military drills around Taiwan on Saturday as a "stern warning" after voicing anger over a stopover in the United States by the island's vice president, William Lai.
Lai -- the frontrunner in Taiwan's presidential election next year and a vocal opponent of Beijing's claims to the island -- returned Friday from a trip to Paraguay during which he stopped in New York and San Francisco.
China has reacted angrily to the US stops, and on Saturday reiterated that Lai was a "troublemaker" while vowing to take "resolute measures... to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity".
The People's Liberation Army "launched joint air and sea patrols and military exercises of the navy and air force around the island of Taiwan" on Saturday, state media outlet Xinhua quoted military spokesperson Shi Yi as saying.
Taiwan said 42 warplanes had entered its air defence zone since 09:00 local time (0100 GMT), and that eight Chinese vessels had also cooperated in the exercises.
Twenty-six of the warplanes involved crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the island's ministry of defence said in a statement.
Xinhua said the drills were meant to test the PLA's ability "to seize control of air and sea spaces" and fight "in real combat conditions".
They were also intended to serve as "a stern warning to the collusion of 'Taiwan independence' separatists with foreign elements and their provocations", it added.
Taiwan said it strongly condemned "such irrational and provocative behaviour" and that it would dispatch "appropriate forces" to respond "with practical actions".
"Conducting a military exercise this time under a pretext not only does not help the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, but also highlights (China's) militaristic mentality and confirms the hegemonic nature of its military expansion," Taiwan's Ministry of National Defence said in a statement.
'New provocative move'
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has pledged to take it one day, by force if necessary.
It launched major military exercises after Nancy Pelosi, then House speaker, visited Taiwan last year and later when President Tsai Ing-wen met top US lawmakers as she transited through the United States.
However, Sifu Ou, an expert with Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research, told AFP he thought "the scale of PLA exercise (this time) will be moderate".
"It will put pressure on Taiwan and not cause negative effects that will help William Lai," Ou said.
Past military exercises China has launched around Taiwan during an election year have been seen as favourable to candidates from Lai's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is largely regarded as pro-Washington.
The United States had called for calm over Lai's visit, which it described as routine travel.
Lai stopped in New York and returned via San Francisco en route to and from Paraguay, one of the dwindling number of nations that diplomatically recognise Taipei.
But on Saturday, an official from the Communist Party's Taiwan Work Office "strongly condemned" Lai's trip, calling it a "new provocative move" by the DPP, "to further collude with the United States", Xinhua said.
"Lai's latest 'stopover'... was a disguise he used to sell out the interests of Taiwan in order to seek gains in the local election through dishonest moves," the official was quoted as saying.
"Lai's deeds have proven that he is an out-and-out troublemaker who will push Taiwan to the dangerous brink of war and bring deep troubles to Taiwan compatriots", the readout continued.
At a lunch in New York during the trip, Lai vowed "to resist annexation" and continue to uphold the core tenets of Tsai's administration.
Lai has been far more outspoken about independence than Tsai, to whom Beijing is already hostile as she refuses to accept its view that Taiwan is a part of China.
The Harvard-educated doctor turned politician has previously described himself as a "pragmatic Taiwan independence worker".
At a summit on Friday, the leaders of the United States, Japan and South Korea said they opposed China's "dangerous and aggressive behavior" asserting maritime claims in the Indo-Pacific region.
"We reaffirm the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the international community," it said.
"There is no change in our basic positions on Taiwan, and we call for a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues," it said.