China Launches Military Drills Following Taiwan's Presidential Inauguration

Rising Tensions in the Taiwan Strait: A New Era of Strain

by Faruk Imamovic
China Launches Military Drills Following Taiwan's Presidential Inauguration
© Getty Images/Kevin Frayer

Tensions are escalating once again in the Taiwan Strait, with China initiating military drills surrounding Taiwan just days after the island's new president, Lai Ching-te, was sworn in. The exercises commenced early Thursday, described by China as a "punishment" for what it called "separatist acts" — a direct reference to the election and inauguration of Taiwan's new leader.

Despite steadily deteriorating relations between the two sides over recent years, this latest escalation presents a formidable challenge for Taiwan's new leader. Lai’s ruling party has been a staunch proponent of democracy amidst growing threats from its powerful, authoritarian neighbor.

China's Communist Party insists Taiwan is part of its territory, even though it has never controlled it, and it has vowed to take the island, by force if necessary. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China’s stance has grown increasingly aggressive.

The Nature and Scope of the Drills

The Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced it had launched joint military drills involving the army, navy, air force, and rocket force in areas around Taiwan.

These drills are taking place in the Taiwan Strait—a narrow waterway separating the self-ruling island from mainland China—as well as to the north, south, and east of Taiwan. Additionally, the exercises are being conducted near Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu, and Dongyin, located just off China's southeastern coast.

Naval Colonel Li Xi, spokesperson for the command, described the exercises as "a strong punishment for the separatist acts of Taiwan independence forces and a serious warning against interference and provocation by external forces." Chinese state media has extensively covered the drills, including a CCTV livestream, and the military has posted footage of its vessels on social media platforms.

In response, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry stated it had deployed sea, air, and ground forces to counter China’s drills. The ministry condemned these actions as irrational provocations undermining regional peace and stability.

Taiwan's presidential office also issued a statement expressing confidence in its ability to defend national security, accusing China of using military provocation to threaten Taiwan’s democracy and freedom.

Taiwan Inaugurates New President Lai Ching-te© Getty Images/Annabelle Chih

Political Transitions and Beijing’s Response

The immediate catalyst for this escalation is Lai’s inauguration on Monday.

Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), now in its third consecutive term, views Taiwan as a de facto sovereign nation with a distinct Taiwanese identity. Ahead of the elections in January, Beijing had warned that a Lai victory could heighten tensions and potentially lead to conflict, framing the election as a choice between "peace and war." However, Taiwanese voters dismissed these warnings, re-electing the DPP, although two opposition parties that favor closer ties with China now hold a majority in parliament.

China’s government and state media have consistently criticized Lai, labeling him a dangerous separatist and "war maker" while rejecting his overtures for dialogue. Beijing's animosity towards Lai is rooted in his political history and its broader reluctance to engage directly with many of Taiwan's leaders.

Although Lai’s stance on Taiwan independence has moderated over the years, Beijing has never forgiven his earlier comments supporting independence. This hostility was underscored by the military drills following his inauguration.

In his inaugural speech, Lai set the tone for his administration's approach to China, declaring that a "glorious era of Taiwan’s democracy has arrived" and reaffirming a commitment to defend its sovereignty. He called on Beijing to end its intimidation and respect the Taiwanese people's right to determine their own destiny.

Historical Context and Current Dynamics

The complex relationship between China and Taiwan traces back to the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, which saw the Chinese Communist Party take control of the mainland, establishing the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing.

The defeated Nationalist Party retreated to Taiwan, moving the seat of their Republic of China (ROC) government to Taipei. Both sides have since claimed to be the legitimate government of all Chinese territory. Over the years, Taiwan has transformed into a vibrant democracy with its own military, currency, constitution, and elected government.

However, it is not recognized as an independent country by most of the international community. Diplomatic isolation has increased as more governments have switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing, though unofficial ties with many Western nations have strengthened, partly in response to China's aggressive stance.

Under Xi Jinping, China has become more assertive in its foreign policy and authoritarian domestically. Since the DPP took office in 2016, China has cut official communications with Taiwan and ramped up economic, military, and diplomatic pressure.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's ties with Washington have grown stronger, marked by increased arms sales and high-level political engagement, further straining cross-strait relations.

The Role of the United States

The United States has historically navigated a delicate balance in its relations with China and Taiwan.

Since switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the US has adhered to the "One China" policy, recognizing the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China while acknowledging Beijing's position that Taiwan is part of China.

However, it has never accepted the Chinese Communist Party's claim of sovereignty over Taiwan. The US maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan, bolstered in recent years. Bound by law to provide Taiwan with defensive capabilities, the US supplies the island with defensive weaponry.

American lawmakers frequently visit Taiwan and have supported legislation to enhance US support for the island. Despite this support, the US has historically maintained a policy of "strategic ambiguity," deliberately vague on whether it would defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion.

After Taiwan's election in January, a bipartisan US delegation visited the island, meeting with Lai and then-President Tsai Ing-wen, reaffirming American support for Taiwan regardless of the outcome of the upcoming US elections.

In response, Beijing announced sanctions against former US House Representative Mike Gallagher, who led the delegation, accusing him of interfering in China's internal affairs.