Taiwan Begins Missile Tests Amid Chinese Military Drills in South China Sea

Taiwan began the first of six missile tests on Wednesday, a day after the Chinese military revealed it had conducted an amphibious landing exercise as part of its month-long drills in the South China Sea.

The first two rounds of tests are being carried out by Taiwan's state-owned weapons and technology developer, National Chung‑Shan Institute of Science and Technology, on Wednesday and Thursday. Four more rounds are scheduled between March 10 and 19, according to government notices released by the Council of Agriculture and Taiwan Fisheries Agency.

Experts are expected to study Taiwan's domestically produced Hsiung Feng IIE surface-to-surface cruise missiles, as well as the island's Thunderbolt-2000 tactical rocket launcher—both capable of striking targets along the Chinese coast and further inland.

According to Taiwan's state-funded Central News Agency, the missile tests have attracted the attention of China's deep-sea scientific research vessel Dong Fang Hong 3, which appeared for the first time in the waters east of Taiwan this week. The ship has intelligence-gathering capabilities, reported CNA, citing a military source.

On Monday, Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration said it held live-fire drills on the Pratas Island—also known as Dongsha—and is planning another exercise on Itu Aba, which Taiwan calls Taiping Island, on March 23. Both islands are in the contested South China Sea and administered by Taiwan, while the latter is the largest of the disputed Spratly Islands.

The quarterly coast guard drills will coincide with other live-fire combat readiness exercises by Taiwan's air force and navy throughout the month.

Analysts in Taiwan say the missile tests and coast guard drills will have been planned far in advance, but the timing of the announcements this week was likely more than just coincidence.

On Friday, a no-go zone notice put out by China's Maritime Safety Administration preceded a month-long comprehensive military drill scheduled for March.

Commentators on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV's Defense Review program described Taiwan's exercises in the South China Sea as "military posturing," saying the government of the self-ruled island was hoping to boost public morale with a show of force.

Chinese Navy Hovercrafts Join Landing Drill
Chinese Navy Hovercrafts Join Landing Drill

The People's Liberation Army drills in the contested waters will take place within a 3.1-mile radius off Leizhou Peninsula, which forms part of the southern province of Guangdong, the government notice said. They come amid separate live-fire exercises in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea, according to Chinese state media reports.

A CCTV report on Wednesday said China's Southern Theater Command recently conducted exercises involving all branches of the PLA: its ground force, navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force.

The PLA Navy broadcast footage of marines and a battle tank storming a beach in a simulated landing drill, fueling media speculation in Taipei that Beijing was preparing for an eventual invasion of the island.

"The military confrontation on the surface has highlighted the fact that the demands of authoritarian China and democratic Taiwan are completely different," said Su Tzu-yun, a security analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, Taiwan's government-funded think tank.

The PLA's landing exercise was an "offensive operation," while Taiwan's coast guard drills—comprising light arms and weapons with limited range—showed a "defensive posture," Su told Newsweek.

He added: "In particular, the [Taiwanese] missile tests, which are generally assessed to be high-altitude air defense missiles and long-range anti-ship / counterstrike missiles, are asymmetrical capabilities to defend against the numerically superior PLA."

According to Su, Taipei is conducting a "strategic waltz" by sending signals, to its potential enemy and to allies, that it is prepared to defend itself while avoiding provocation.

This posture, in which Taiwan shows the United States and others that it will not take advantage of their security assurances, needed to be maintained "in order to defend itself and contribute to regional security," he added.

Taiwan's defense ministry said it would be closely monitoring Chinese military exercises this month, but China is also tracking the movements of other countries in the region.

The South China Sea Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank monitoring military activity by the U.S. and its allies, said American reconnaissance aircraft flew 75 sorties in the area in February.

The figures showed an "uptick from the previous months," the think tank reported on Tuesday, when it also noted the appearance of a Royal Australian Air Force maritime patrol aircraft in the East China Sea.

China lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea, where other claimants include Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Regular freedom of navigation exercises by the U.S. Navy have challenged maritime claims in the region. Warships sent by other Western navies have also been spotted sailing through the disputed sea.

The U.K.'s flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is expected to pass through the South China Sea and sensitive Taiwan Strait this summer during its deployment to the East China Sea. Officials in Germany told Reuters on Tuesday that one of the country's warships would transit the South China Sea for the first time in 19 years this August.

China's defense ministry has warned against using freedom of navigation operations to increase the presence of military vessels in the South China Sea.

Without naming specific governments, the ministry on Monday urged "relevant nations" to "stop provoking tensions in the South China Sea."

This article has been updated with comments by security analyst Su Tzu-yun.

Chinese Military Storms Beach In Landing Drill
This screenshot, from a PLA Navy broadcast on March 2, shows Chinese marines and a battle tank being offloaded on a beach during a landing drill in an unspecified location in the South China Sea. PLA Navy

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