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Taiwan conducts major annual military exercise amid rising China tensions

"It lets the world see our determination and efforts to defend the country's territory," President Tsai Ing-wen said.
Image: Two US-made AH-64E Apache attack helicopters release flares during the annual Han Kuang military drills in Taichung
Two US-made AH-64E Apache attack helicopters release flares during the annual Han Kuang military drills in Taichung, Taiwan on July 16, 2020.Sam Yeh / AFP - Getty Images

Taiwan conducted a major live-fire military exercise on Thursday with its air, sea and land forces, President Tsai Ing-wen said, showing the island's determination to defend itself.

The drills, dubbed "Han Kuang," are Taiwan's main annual military exercises. But this year they came as China has stepped up its military and navy activity around the island, which it views as sovereign territory.

"The Han Kuang exercises are a major annual event for the armed forces, evaluating the development of combat abilities," Tsai told troops. The drills began Monday and conclude on Friday.

"Even more, it lets the world see our determination and efforts to defend the country's territory."

Beijing dismissed the military exercises and said that China's territorial integrity was "rock solid and indestructible," and that reunification with the mainland was an "irreversible trend" that could not be stopped, Hua Chunying, ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, said Thursday.

China's state-owned Global Times newspaper also called the activity a "meaningless show" and an obvious attempt to prepare againstChina's People's Liberation Army.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of "one China" and has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control. Taiwan, while democratic and self-governing, has long been claimed by China.

In May, during China's annual National People's Congress, Premier Li Keqiang omitted the word "peaceful" from China's regular language of reunification with Taiwan, which some analysts took as a sign of China's growing assertiveness to forcefully reunite Taiwan with the mainland.

The reunification remains a priority for Beijing, said Veerle Nouwens​, a research fellow in the Asia-Pacific region at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank.

"China has continued to exercise at sea and in the air in the South China Sea and around Taiwan," Nouwens​ said. "This is not particularly new but takes place in a wider context of increasing Chinese assertiveness on its borders and in the surrounding region."

About 8,000 personnel took part in drills, held on a coastal strip near Taichung in central Taiwan. Although Taiwan's military is well trained and equipped with mostly U.S.-made hardware, China has huge numerical superiority.

Tsai, who won re-election by a landslide in January after pledging to take a tough stance on China, has made military modernization a priority. Taiwan unveiled its largest defense spending increase in more than a decade last year.

"Early in her new term as president, Tsai needs to be in the business ... of continuing her fairly aggressive stance on China," Ian Inkster, a professor at the London-based Centre of Taiwan Studies, said.

"Priorities do seem to be with retaining the Chinese provocative position. So, opportunities will be taken when they offer themselves," he said.

Two domestically-made armoured vehicles launch smoke grenades during the annual Han Kuang military drills in Taiwan.Sam Yeh / AFP - Getty Images

Taiwan is a recurring flashpoint in the U.S.-China relationship, with Beijing routinely denouncing Washington's support for the island, amid what China perceives as increased U.S. activity in the region.

This week, Beijing announced sanctions on Lockheed Martin, the U.S. weapons maker that was involved in the latest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. China was making the move "to safeguard the country's interests," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, without giving further details.

Zhao also called on the U.S. to stop selling weapons to Taiwan to "avoid further harming Sino-U.S. ties and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."

The U.S., like most countries, has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but Washington is bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged China to reconsider the sanctions, saying that Lockheed Martin was "an American company, conducting business that was consistent with American foreign policy."

"I regret that the Chinese Communist Party chose to make that threat against Lockheed Martin," Pompeo said. "I hope they'll reconsider that and not follow through."

Reuters contributed to this report.

Ed Flanagan and Dawn Liu contributed.