Cross Strait

Exercise with care

Military drills take centre-stage in latest round of Sino-US tensions


Alex Azar visited Taipei

To nobody’s great surprise the six-month review of January’s trade agreement between Washington and Beijing has been postponed. “I don’t want to talk to China right now,” Donald Trump, the US president, explained on Tuesday.

But with ties between the two superpowers looking more strained than ever, how are they choosing to communicate? More of the signalling is coming through military exercises, it seems.

Beijing chose to demonstrate its displeasure over the Taipei visit of US Secretary of Health Alex Azar earlier this month with a series of live-fire drills from the People’s Liberation Army on the northern and southern ends of the Taiwan Strait. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian confirmed that the drills were a response to the “serious and negative signal” (presumably sent by the US) conveyed by Azar’s visit.

The exercises went well beyond standard training in demonstrating China’s ability to “launch attacks on Taiwan secessionists from any direction of the Taiwan Strait,” the Global Times explained.

Azar, the health secretary, is the most senior American official to visit Taiwan since 1979. He was careful to refer to the island as a jurisdiction rather than a country during his trip but Beijing still sees his visit as a violation of an agreement that prohibits official-level contact between Taiwan and the US.

Before taking office in 2016 Donald Trump talked to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen by telephone – the first time a US president or president-elect had spoken directly to a Taiwanese leader since 1979. American media downplayed the conversation, reckoning that Trump had no real understanding of the significance of the call. But he then stirred the pot a few days later by questioning whether the US needed to abide by its “One-China” policy.

The Chinese are also perturbed by news that Taipei is in talks with Washington for a further round of arms sales, following the publication of the island’s military budget for 2021, which increased more than 10%. China’s foreign ministry immediately rubbished the plans as a waste of money. “No matter how much it spends, as we all know, Taiwan is a small island. If it wants to fight against mainland China, it is like an ant trying to move a tree,” its spokesman scoffed.

Another major round of military maneouvres has also kicked off this week in Hawaii as part of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) – the world’s largest international maritime drill, organised by the Americans every second year. It brings together naval forces from a range of countries but not the Chinese, who were absent from the exercises despite taking part in 2014 and 2016.

However, Taiwan’s military isn’t involved in the drills either, despite comments from its defence ministry that it would like to take part. Most analysts see this as an effort by the Americans to avoid further antagonising the Chinese.

Rather than direct confrontation between the two sides, the bigger risk is an accidental engagement. Both have held simultaneous exercises in the South China Sea in recent months and PLA jets have repeatedly crossed the Taiwan Strait ‘median line’, a de facto separator between China and the island that both sides have respected in the past so as to avoid conflict. This week the USS Mustin was the seventh American warship to sail through the narrow Taiwan Strait this year, closely tracked by a Chinese destroyer.

All of this activity spurs fears about accidental clashes, with Taiwan’s China Times reporting that the island’s air force is deploying its most experienced pilots in missions to track the jets “intruding” into its airspace in a bid to “avoid misfiring”.

On similar lines the South China Morning Post reported last week that the PLA has ordered its personnel “not to fire the first shot” as Beijing also tries to keep a lid on tensions in the South China Sea.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.