TAIPEI – China is likely to launch military exercises next week near Taiwan, using Vice President William Lai’s stops in the United States as a pretext to intimidate voters ahead of next year’s elections and make them “fear war”, they said Taiwanese officials.
The US transits of Lai, who is the leading candidate for Taiwan’s presidential election in January, have already drawn the ire of Beijing. The United States has described the stops as routine and without reason for China to take “provocative” steps.
Beijing could carry out moves similar to those it carried out in April to “militarily intimidate” voters in Taiwan as well as countries in the region, officials briefed on the matter said, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter. .
The April exercises included practicing blocking in an angry response to a meeting between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during Tsai’s stopover in Los Angeles. .
“It is quite likely that they can use it as a pretext and announce ‘exercises’ around the Taiwan Strait,” said one of the sources, a senior official familiar with Taiwan’s security planning.
“They want to increase fear of war and make Taiwanese vote for their election,” the official said.
Lai will stop in New York on Saturday on his way to Paraguay and San Francisco on Wednesday on his way back to Taiwan. He will go to Paraguay, which maintains formal ties with Taiwan, for the inauguration of its new president.
Neither China’s Defense Ministry nor its Taiwan Affairs Office responded to a request for comment, though the government has repeatedly condemned the visit. China’s ambassador to the United States said last month that his country’s “priority” was to stop the visit.
China’s Maritime Security Administration said on Friday that military exercises would be held off the coast of the eastern city of Ningbo, about 500 km (310 miles) north of Taipei, from Saturday to Monday, but gave no details.
Shortly after that statement was released, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said it will continue to monitor Chinese drills and that people should remain calm in the face of China “harming peace and stability.”
China especially dislikes Lai, who has described himself in the past as a “hands-on worker for Taiwan’s independence.” Lai has said repeatedly during the election campaign that he is not seeking to change the status quo.
The Taiwanese official said Beijing could “improve” the scale of its “combat readiness patrols” near Taiwan that the People’s Liberation Army has conducted frequently in recent months by sending warships and planes near the island that China claims as its territory.
The drills could start shortly after Lai’s stopover in San Francisco and could be part of upcoming annual exercises by China’s Eastern Theater Command, which is responsible for military activity in the area, the official said, citing an analysis Intelligence.
Three US-based sources told Reuters the Biden administration was keen to keep Lai’s visit low-key so as not to stoke tension in the Taiwan Straits ahead of his election, as well as to preserve recent momentum in the engagement with senior Chinese officials.
That includes the prospect of a visit to the United States by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, which could pave the way for a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The State Department told Reuters that, according to previous transits, Lai would meet with the president of the Virginia-based American Institute in Taiwan, a US government-run nonprofit organization with non-public relations. officers with Taiwan.
The position is held by Laura Rosenberger, who until early 2023 was a senior official in Biden’s National Security Council’s handling of China policy.
But neither Taiwan nor the US have provided further details on Lai’s timing on their layovers.
Taiwan believes the scale of the exercises could be smaller than April, the Taiwanese official said.
Chinese warships or planes, however, could still cross the median line of the Taiwan Strait and approach the island’s 24-nautical-mile contiguous zone, according to the official and another official briefed on the matter.
“We have made all the preparations,” the first official said.
Chinese state television this month aired an eight-part series on the People’s Liberation Army, some of which focused on Taiwan.
In one episode, a Chinese warship officer, apparently issuing a warning to a Taiwanese vessel, says: “Your so-called 24 nautical mile line doesn’t exist.”
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said Thursday that China had “no reason” to escalate tension over Lai’s routine stops.
“If China uses this to take provocative actions, it will be China that damages regional peace and security, not Taiwan or the United States,” ministry spokesman Jeff Liu told reporters.
Taipei-based diplomats were divided on China’s likely reaction, according to eight foreign security and diplomatic sources.
One said that the attempt by Beijing and Washington to improve relations could temper China’s response.
But a top foreign security source said Beijing would have to make a show of force given the angry allegations from the trip.
“They’ve pretty much backed into a corner and they’re going to have to do something,” the source told Reuters.
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