Three days of large-scale military drills by China around Taiwan culminated with a simulated blockade and air strikes on Monday. The drills notably included the Shandong, China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier.
The military drills, which commenced on Saturday, coincided with a meeting between Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California over the weekend.
China’s military drills and the reactions they provoked from Taiwan and the US are emblematic of rising tensions in the Pacific region. Beijing and Taipei have long been at odds, but there has been growing speculation in recent years that China might invade Taiwan, which it claims is Chinese territory.
Chinese military drills around Taiwan
“The theater’s troops are ready to fight at all times and can fight at any time to resolutely smash any form of ‘Taiwan independence’ and foreign interference attempts,” the Chinese military said in a statement issued on Monday.
According to Taiwan, at least 11 Chinese naval vessels were detected in the waters around the island at an unspecified distance. An additional 35 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft were reportedly active past Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Four of these were fourth-generation Shenyang J-15 multirole combat aircraft, designed to take off and land on aircraft carriers.
The military exercise also raised concerns in Japan. The Japanese Joint Chiefs of Staff later confirmed in a press briefing that 80 fixed-wing aircraft take-offs and landings from the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong had been observed by Japanese forces.
The Chinese military exercises took place at a point in the Pacific Ocean east of Taiwan and approximately 230 kilometers (143 miles) south of the Japanese island of Miyako in Okinawa prefecture. This close proximity prompted Japan to scramble fighter jets.
According to Chinese State TV, Chinese forces were busy over the three days “simulating the joint sealing off” of Taiwan and practiced “waves of simulated strikes” at strategically valuable positions on the island.
Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center said he suspected that the Chinese military was “practicing and probably refining the aerial coordination and joint operations required to initiate a blockade of Taiwan’s ports and air lanes.”
A Chinese military blockade could choke off Taiwan from trade revenue and military assistance, potentially causing Taipei to capitulate in the event of a conflict.
The Shandong aircraft carrier
Many military analysts were most interested in the presence of the Shandong during China’s military drills around Taiwan.
The Shandong is the first domestically-built aircraft carrier in the Chinese Navy. Its introduction to the fleet in 2019 was a significant milestone in the development of Chinese maritime capabilities.
The Shandong is a Type 002 class carrier, measuring over 300 meters long with a top speed of 30 knots. It can carry 36 fighter jets, helicopters, drones, and other vessels.
The introduction of the Shandong extends the limits of China’s force projection by enabling aircraft to operate further away from Chinese territory. In the event of an incident or conflict involving China and Taiwan, some analysts have theorized a Chinese aircraft carrier would be deployed to deter third parties like the US from coming to the aid of Taiwan.
The US said that it is monitoring the situation around the Taiwan Strait, with an official in Washington saying “Our channels of communication with China remain open and we have consistently urged restraint.”
The EU issued a similar statement also calling for restraint.
“We are concerned by the intensification of military activities of the People’s Liberation Army in the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan, with incursions in Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone and crossing of the median line,” said EU Commission spokeswoman for foreign affairs Nabila Massrali.
In juxtaposition, Russia was supportive of China’s military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and said that Beijing had a right to respond appropriately to repeated “provocations”. Moscow and Beijing recently agreed on a “no limits” partnership following a visit by Xi Jinping to Moscow.
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