China’s military regularly exercises off Taiwan’s coast. But an event a few days ago particularly angered the Communist Party in Beijing. The major maneuver is not just intended to be a signal to Taiwan.

As a “punishment” and a “warning” at the same time – China began a large-scale military exercise around the East Asian island republic shortly after the inauguration of the new president in Taiwan. “This is also a severe punishment for the separatist forces of Taiwan independence and a serious warning against interference and provocation by external forces,” said spokesman for the East Chapter of the People’s Liberation Army, Marine Colonel Li Xi, on Thursday. The army, navy, air force and the missile forces would be holding exercises in the strait between China and Taiwan (Taiwan Strait) and around Taiwan from Thursday morning (local time) until Friday.

“The pro-independence forces will end with shattered skulls and blood” after confronting China’s “grand” plan of “complete unification” with Taiwan, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in Beijing on Thursday.

According to the information, the Chinese military wants to train joint combat readiness at sea and in the air as well as attacks on key targets. Ships and planes would approach Taiwan from the north, south and east for “patrols” and would also come close to several islands, such as the island of Kinmen, just a few kilometers from mainland China. The Taiwan Strait is around 130 kilometers wide at its narrowest point. 

Military expert Zhang Chi said on Chinese state television that China was simulating a blockade of Taiwan. The army wants to practice stopping energy imports “as a lifeline” to Taiwan, cutting off escape routes abroad for Taiwan’s politicians and preventing support from allies such as the USA. The exercise is likely to be the largest since April 2023, in which China also rehearsed a blockade. 

Taiwan’s Vice Defense Minister Po Horng-huei said the aim this time was obviously to show that China had control over the region. Unlike a large-scale exercise following then-US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, this time China has not designated any no-go zones for ships or aircraft, he said. 

The Taiwan Defense Ministry’s morning report on the People’s Liberation Army’s activities over the past 24 hours only mentioned one Chinese fighter jet and eight naval ships around Taiwan. The numbers could possibly only be significantly higher in Friday’s report. There were initially no figures available from the Chinese side.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry condemned the military exercise as an “irrational provocation” that threatened peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwanese forces on the sea, on the ground and in the air were deployed to “defend freedom and democracy with practical actions,” Taipei said. The ministry did not provide further details about the measures. “It is regrettable to see the unilateral military provocations that endanger Taiwan’s democracy and freedom as well as peace and stability,” said presidential spokeswoman Kuo Ya-hui. 

The background to the now announced exercise is likely to be the swearing in of Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te last Monday. His Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidential election in January and supports independence for Taiwan, although Lai has not yet indicated that he would officially declare this. The ruling Communist Party in Beijing accuses the DPP of separatism. China’s government had seen Lai’s inaugural speech as a dangerous signal for independence and read it as a more radical approach. Lai had demanded that China accept Taiwan’s existence.     

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, even though independent and democratically elected governments have been in power there for decades. The leadership in Beijing has already threatened several times to unite the island, which has a population of more than 23 million, and the mainland using coercive military force. In addition to regular exercises by the armed forces, fighter jets fly to Taiwan almost daily to demonstrate the military might of the People’s Liberation Army.

The exercise should also serve as a warning to Taiwan’s allies and in particular to the USA, which has assured the island republic of support in the event of a defense and regularly supplies it with weapons, to the annoyance of Beijing.