July 19, 2024

China launched two days of military drills starting Thursday surrounding Taiwan in what it called a “strong punishment” to its opponents on the self-governing island, after Taiwan’s new president pledged to defend its sovereignty as he took office.

The drills were the first substantive response by China to the swearing in of President Lai Ching-te, whom Beijing dislikes, in Taipei on Monday. Mr. Lai’s party asserts Taiwan’s separate status from China, and in a high-profile inaugural speech on Monday, he vowed to keep Taiwan’s democracy safe from Chinese pressure.

China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, has mainly responded to Mr. Lai’s speech with sharply worded criticisms. But it escalated its response Thursday by announcing that it was conducting sea and air exercises that would encircle Taiwan and draw close to the Taiwanese islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu and Dongyin in the Taiwan Strait.

China did not say how many planes and ships it was deploying in the exercise, but the last major drill in multiple locations around Taiwan that China has conducted was in April of last year in response to the visit to Taiwan by the former House speaker, Kevin McCarthy.

“Such exercises put pressure on Taiwan and its outlying islands and have threatened the regional stability and increased the risks of conflicts,” said Ou Si-fu, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei, which is affiliated with Taiwan’s defense ministry.

Li Xi, a spokesman of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, said the exercises served as “strong punishment” for “Taiwan independence forces,” according to Chinese state media, and “a stern warning against the interference and provocation by external forces,” a reference to the United States.

Even as he pledged to protect Taiwan, Mr. Lai had sought to strike a conciliatory note in other ways, signaling that he remained open to holding talks with Beijing — which China had frozen in 2016 — and to resuming cross-strait tourism. But China took offense to Mr. Lai’s assertion that the sides were equal — he had said that they “are not subordinate to each other” — and his emphasis on Taiwan’s democratic identity and warnings against threats from China.

After the speech, Beijing accused Mr. Lai of promoting formal independence for Taiwan and said the new president was more dangerous than his predecessors. Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, said this week: “The ugly acts of Lai Ching-te and others who betray the nation and their ancestors is disgraceful,” according to China’s foreign ministry. “All Taiwan independence separatists will be nailed to the pillar of shame in history.”

Taiwanese officials and military experts have been expecting China to make a show of military force after Mr. Lai’s inauguration. Ma Chen-kun, a professor at Taiwan’s National Defense University, said that the pressure from the People’s Liberation Army was likely to continue, including around the Kinmen and Matsu islands, which are Taiwanese controlled islands close to the Chinese mainland.

Chris Buckley contributed reporting.

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