This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China’s military is holding three separate naval exercises and live-fire drills simultaneously this week, with one of them covering parts of the South China Sea disputed between China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The Maritime Safety Administration of Hainan, China’s southernmost province, released a notice late Friday stating a military exercise would be held in an area of the Paracel Islands from Aug. 24 through Aug. 29. It warned outside vessels to steer 5 nautical miles (9 kilometers) clear of the drill area but otherwise gave no details.
The Paracel Islands are a string of disputed rocks and islets in the north of the South China Sea. The boundaries of the exercise include Woody Island, China’s largest military base in the area, and the waters to the northeast of the Paracels near Pratas atoll, which is occupied by Taiwan.
Satellite imagery viewed by Radio Free Asia reveals some of China’s aircraft and warships that may have been positioned in the South China Sea ahead of time, either to participate in the exercise or to provide supplies to China’s disparate outposts.
Four fighter jets and multiple military transport aircraft were stationed at Woody Island, a prime staging area for China’s military operations in the South China Sea, on Aug. 17, and one fighter jet and what appears to be a military transport aircraft remained there on Aug. 22.
What appears to be a Y-8 military transport aircraft is at Fiery Cross Reef, another Chinese base in the Spratly Islands south of the Paracels, as of Monday, after what looked to be a Type 904 supply ship stopped by last Friday.
There has been a near-continuous sequence of Chinese military drills recently, and the tempo is rising this week, with three exercises around the same time. Live-fire drills began off the coast of Qingdao on Saturday and are set to end on Wednesday, and China is also currently in the middle of an exercise in Bohai Bay that began last Friday and runs until this Friday.
‘Many ways to interpret’
Ian Easton, a senior director at the Virginia-based Project 2049 Institute, said these exercises were likely not a reaction to any external event and may be meant to see how China’s neighbors and regional stakeholders like the United States react.
“There are many ways to interpret exercises like these,” he said.
“It could be the case they represent nothing other than routine training drills planned many months ago, and they are being played up by the CCP Propaganda Department for strategic psychological warfare purposes,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. But Easton added another possibility: “The PLA could be getting its forces ready for a future war.”
There has been speculation that China would hold an ‘island seizure’ exercise in August aimed at simulating a takeover of Pratas Island. Japan’s Kyodo news agency first reported in May that China planned on doing so, and a professor from one of China’s military universities appeared to verify it in an interview with a Hong Kong news outlet in late July. That professor, Li Daguang, recanted his comments a few days later, but it was enough to prompt Taiwan into sending a detachment of Marines to Pratas in early August.
A delegation of legislators from Taiwan’s Kuomintang party applied to visit Pratas on Aug. 18 to assess the military readiness of the garrison there, but their request was rejected by the Ministry of National Defense, which stated “the current regional situation is becoming more and more complex.”
Pratas lies roughly 275 miles from the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, and only 210 miles southeast of Hong Kong. Despite its remoteness, Easton believes an actual Chinese invasion of the island wouldn’t be so simple.
“In the event of a traditional invasion, Pratas would likely be a bloody battle. Taiwan’s Marines are tough warriors, some of Taiwan’s finest, and Pratas is reportedly well fortified,” he said.
“But what if the PLA uses hybrid warfare tactics and sends special forces in civilian dress mixed with fishermen and other maritime militia? The CCP can be expected to do things that will surprise outsiders.” PLA stands for China’s People’s Liberation Army.
China already held large-scale drills in the Taiwan Strait on Aug. 13, and a submarine exercise near the northern tip of Taiwan last week, according to Chinese state media. Taiwan, for its part, released a video on its Ministry of National Defense’s Facebook page portraying a simulated Taiwanese resistance to any invasion of the island by China.
Stern remarks from China
The latest exercises around the Paracels began just a day after Taiwan and the U.S. marked the anniversary of the 1958 Second Taiwan Strait crisis, which saw the People’s Republic of China attack the Taiwanese-occupied Kinmen and Matsu islands. While Kinmen is administered by the Taiwan-based Republic of China, it sits on the other side of the Taiwan Strait that separates the island of Taiwan from mainland China, and is less than two miles from the Chinese city of Xiamen.
This year, the director of the American Institute of Taiwan, the de facto American embassy on the self-governed island, traveled to Kinmen island to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the event with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. This prompted stern remarks from China, which views Taiwan as a rogue province that should ‘unify’ with the mainland. China has threatened military force if Taiwan were to declare itself an independent country.
“We urge the US to observe the one-China principle and the Three Sino-US Joint Communiqués, and to stop sending the wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces,” Ma Xiaoguang, spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said at a press conference Monday.
Ma was referring to diplomatic principles that have guided U.S.-Chinese relations on the issue of Taiwan since Washington shifted official recognition from Taipei to Beijing four decades ago. The U.S. maintains a close, unofficial relationship with Taiwan, including defense ties, but does not advocate for independence for the self-governing island.
Meanwhile, Vietnam and China commemorated the 20th anniversary of an agreement settling the land border between the two countries on Sunday. At that ceremony, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, apparently called on Vietnam to return to negotiations with China over the South China Sea dispute.
Vietnam and China frequently butt heads over the South China Sea, and China’s last exercise in the Paracels on July 1-5 prompted outcry from Vietnam, as well as the United States and the Philippines.