China’s “Punishment” Drills Around Taiwan: Day One

At least 49 Chinese aircraft, including Su-30 and J-16 Flanker fighters, and KJ-500 airborne early warning and control planes, took part in large-scale drills encircling Taiwan. Warships and forces on the mainland also participated in the exercise, which officials in China have described using fiery rhetoric as a “strong punishment” for pro-independence elements on the island and a “serious warning” against outside interference in cross-strait affairs.

China’s Eastern Theater Command kicked off the drills, which are set to last two days and are nicknamed Joint Sword-2024A, earlier today. The exercise is widely seen as a response to the inauguration on Monday of Taiwanese President Lai Ching Te. In his inauguration speech, he called “on China to cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan.” Chinese authorities decried Lai’s remarks as a “confession of independence.” Lai, who also goes by the English first name William, was elected in January and had previously served as Vice President under Taiwan’s preceding President Tsai Ing Wen.

As seen in the map below from the Eastern Theater Command, the designated exercise areas surround Taiwan. As part of the drills, Chinese forces are also conducting activities around the islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu, and Dongyin, which lie very close to the Chinese mainland, but are under the control of Taiwanese authorities.

A map showing the various Joint Sword-2024A exercise areas. PLA Eastern Theater Command

Joint Sword-2024A is “focusing on such subjects as joint maritime and air combat readiness patrols, joint seizure of comprehensive battlefield control, and joint precision targeting of key targets,” according to a machine translation of a statement from People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Col. Li Xi, spokesperson for the Eastern Theater Command. “Ships and aircraft arrived at combat patrols near Taiwan Island, and integrated linkage inside and outside the island chain tested the actual joint combat capabilities of the theater forces.”

Another map from PLA Eastern Theater Command depicting ships moving toward Taiwan from all sides as part of the Joint Sword-2024A exercise. PLA Eastern Theater Command

The PLA does not look to have released an official list of units or assets taking part in Joint Sword-2024A so far. The Eastern Theater Command did put out a video highlighting what it called

On the air side, “overall 49 PLA aircraft in various types (including SU-30, J-16, KJ-500 etc.) were detected” on the first day of the exercise, according to a social media post from the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense. Of the 49, “35 crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait and entered the north, central and southwest parts of Taiwan’s ADIZ [Air Defense Identification Zone].”

It is worth noting that Taiwanese authorities had initially said that 42 Chinese military aircraft had conducted sorties around the island as part of Joint Sword-2024A. The exact mix of types remains unclear.

A stock picture of a Chinese Su-30MKK Flanker. Dmitriy Pichugin
A stock picture of a Chinese J-16. Japan Ministry of Defense
A Chinese KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft that Taiwanese forces photographed prior to the Joint Sword-2024A drills. Taiwan Ministry of National Defense

Officials in Taiwan also said earlier in the day that 15 PLA Navy ships and another 16 vessels belonging to the China Coast Guard were participating in the drills, but did not identify their types. Imagery that has emerged so far shows PLAN Type 052D destroyers and Type 054A frigates, as well as at least one Type 022 catamaran missile boat participating in Joint Sword-2024A. Interestingly, the Type 022 was observed operating together with Coast Guard ships.

Details about the land-based components of Joint Sword-2024A are scant.

A map Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense released earlier today showing the position of various air, sea, and what may be ground assets on outlying islands. Taiwan Ministry of National Defense

Today, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command did release promotional poster-like images for what it called examples of “cross-strait lethality.” These depicted J-16 and J-20 fighters, the Type 052D destroyer, the Type 071 amphibious warfare ship, what looks to be a DF-15 short-range ballistic missile, and PHL-16 long-range rocket artillery systems. Beyond the J-16 and Type 052D, it’s unclear if any of these other systems have yet taken part in Joint Sword-2024A.

The “cross-strait lethality” posters that PLA Eastern Theater Command put out. Top, from right to left: the J-20 stealth fighter, the J-16 fighter, the Type 052D destroyer. Bottom, from right to left: the Type 071 amphibious warfare ship, what looks to be a DF-15 short-range ballistic missile, PHL-16 rocket artillery systems. PLA Eastern Theater Command

Videos have emerged purporting to show Taiwan’s Coast Guard threatening to drive Chinese ships out of a particular area to the northwest of the island, but the exact circumstances and whether there was any kind of real altercation are unclear.

Authorities on Taiwan said earlier that they had not seen any indications of the PLA live-firing any weapons as part of the drills so far. The Taiwanese armed forces scrambled its own jets and put other forces on alert in response to the exercise, which it has otherwise been monitoring.

Regardless of the scale and scope of the exerciss so far, or what the exact mix of assets has been, Joint Sword-2024A is clearly intended to be highly provocative show of force. The exercise areas notably overlap to a significant degree with those from large scale drills that followed the visit to the island by then-U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in 2022, a trip that also drew the fury of Chinese authorities.

The PLA and other arms of the Chinese government have been unusually vocal about their intent in this case, as well.

“This is also a strong punishment for the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces seeking ‘independence’ and a serious warning against interference and provocation by external forces,” PLA Eastern Theater Command spokesperson Col. Li’s statement adds.

The government in Beijing views the island of Taiwan and the outlying territories it controls as a rogue province and has long threatened to use any means necessary, including military intervention, to prevent any attempt at formal independence from the mainland.

A machine translation of the release accompanying the “cross-strait lethality” posters shows it includes a call to action that ends with “the weapon pointing at ‘Taiwan independence’ to kill ‘independence’ is already in place.”

“Taiwan independence forces will be left with their heads broken and blood flowing after colliding against the great… trend of China achieving complete unification,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters earlier in the day, according to AFP.

For their part, Taiwanese authorities have been defiant.

“The CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] military exercises, which highlight its hegemony mindset, have undermined regional peace and stability,” a social media post from the Ministry of National Defense, seen below, reads. “The ROC [Republic of China, Taiwan’s formal name] Armed Forces stand ready to defend our country. We seek no conflicts, but we will not shy away from one.”

“My responsibility is to safeguard the nation and ensure the safety of all citizens,” President Lai also said today while meeting with members of the country’s 66th Marine Brigade.

This all follows already steadily growing tensions between Beijing and Taipei during Tsai Ing Wen’s administration, under which aurthorities in Taiwan openly pursued policities to increase decoupling with the mainland. The response from the PLA has already been increasingly provocative exercises and other developments. The Chinese government also regularly uses its considerable leverage in other forums to try to isolate the island economically and politicially

U.S. and Taiwanese authorities have warned in recent years that the PLA could be in a position where it would feel confident enough to launch an intervention against the island by 2027, if not earlier.

Whether or not the tenor of the Joint Sword-2024A dramatically escalates during day two remains to be seen. Whatever the case, it is already stoking fears that that a potential Chinese military intervention PLA may be inching closer to becoming a reality.

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