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China's massed drills near Taiwan take aim at Washington audience

GlobalApr 16, 2021 15:20
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© Reuters.

By Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee
TAIPEI, April 16 (Reuters) - Chinese carrier drills and
stepped-up incursions into Taiwan's air defence zone in recent
weeks are meant to send a message to Washington to stand down
and back off, security sources in Taipei say.
The increased activity - which China, unusually, described
as "combat drills" on Wednesday - has raised alarm in both
Taipei and Washington, though security officials do not see it
as a sign of an imminent attack.
Rather, according to an official familiar with Taiwan's
security planning, at least some of the exercises are practicing
"access denial" manoeuvres to prevent foreign forces from coming
to Taipei's defence in a war.
"China claimed that the drills are near Taiwan, but judging
by their location it's actually meant for the U.S. military,"
said the official in Taiwan, speaking on condition of anonymity
as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
As China sailed an aircraft carrier group near Taiwan last
week, its air force simulated attacks on American ships,
although no U.S. Navy vessels were known to be in the area at
the time, the source said.
The U.S. Navy has been carrying out regular transits of the
Taiwan Strait, which separates the island from China.
One Western security source said the almost-daily flights by
Chinese anti-submarine aircraft in the northernmost part of the
South China Sea were probably a response to U.S. missions there,
including by submarines, or to show the Pentagon that China can
hunt for U.S. submarines.
"They are not chasing Taiwanese subs," the source said,
pointing to Taiwan's own tiny fleet of four, two of which date
from World War Two.
The U.S. Navy does not give details of any submarine patrols
near Taiwan or in the South China Sea.
President Joe Biden's White House has maintained a
tough-on-China stance inherited from the Trump administration.
That has included more visible support for Taiwan, angering
China, which considers the island part of its territory and sees
Washington as giving succour to Taiwanese who seek independence,
a red line for Beijing.
Two U.S. military officials, speaking on the condition of
anonymity, said that although the United States was concerned
about Chinese activity around Taiwan, there was no sense of an
imminent attack.
"For the past five years, China has been the centrepiece of
the United States' national defence strategy. So of course we're
concerned," one official said.
China's Defence Ministry, Taiwan's Defence Ministry and the
U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet did not respond to requests for comment.
Although China has escalated its rhetoric in response to
U.S. warships passing through the Taiwan Strait, a U.S. defence
official said Washington had not seen any kind of operational
military escalation by the Chinese in response.
In a statement to Reuters, China's Foreign Ministry said the
United States has "swelled the arrogance of Taiwan independence
Washington "bears an inescapable responsibility for tensions
in the Taiwan Strait", it added.
A senior U.S. administration official said that regardless
of who Beijing's incursions near Taiwan were aimed at, their
effect was direct "intimidation and coercion" of Taiwan.
"Our operations there have been in a pretty steady state
consistently," the official said. "So I don't think there's an
increased pace of U.S. military operations that are necessarily
driving what Beijing is doing. That feels a little bit like an
excuse there for what they're doing."
The U.S. Navy this month took the rare step of publishing a
photo on its main website of a U.S. warship in the Philippine
Sea watching China's Liaoning carrier.
Raising the stakes, China's Navy said for the first time
last week that carrier drills near Taiwan would become routine.
Another U.S. warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait two
days after China's announcement of its carrier manoeuvres, part
of what the Pentagon refers to as "routine" transits that have
prompted Beijing to accuse Washington of causing regional
"China's top concern in any Taiwan contingency would be
preventing or at least blunting armed intervention by the U.S.",
said Greg Poling, a maritime security expert at Washington's
Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"So demonstrating increased ability to deny U.S. access is a
coercive message sent to both Washington and Taipei."

China's massed drills near Taiwan take aim at Washington audience

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