LONDON - China launched surprise “punishment” drills encircling Taiwan, just days after the inauguration of a new Taiwanese president Beijing has denounced as a “separatist.”

The two-day exercise began abruptly at 7.45am on Thursday and involved aircraft and ships surrounding the island to “test” their combat capabilities, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said.

Experts said the drills simulated a full-scale attack on Taiwan for the first time, rather than just a blockade.

Launching the exercise, China’s military put out a series of posters touting what it called its “cross-strait lethality”. They featured images of missiles, jets and boats next to blood-stained text.

“The weapon aimed at ‘Taiwan independence’ to kill ‘independence’ is already in place,” it declared.

Taiwan condemned the manoeuvres, which come just three days after Lai Ching-te took office as the country’s new president – a man Beijing has long distrusted as a dangerous separatist and who Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, described as “disgraceful” earlier this week.

Mr Lai said he will “stand on the front line” to defend Taiwan, speaking shortly after the war games began.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which claims Taiwan as its own despite never ruling there, has refused to renounce seizing the island by force. It has also ignored Mr Lai’s repeated invitations to talks.

In a defining speech on Monday to set the tone for his administration, Mr Lai told China to cease military and political intimidation of his country and respect its democracy.

The drills present an early test of the Lai presidency, although Taiwan has long been subjected to sustained Chinese military and economic coercion tactics in recent years.

Taiwan’s defence ministry condemned the drills as “irrational provocation that has jeopardised regional peace and stability” and said it had put its forces on alert to protect its territory.

“We seek no conflicts, but we will not shy away from one. We have the capacity, determination and confidence to safeguard our national security,” the ministry said in a statement that also urged citizens to “stand united.”

The PLA said the drills serve as “strong punishment for the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence’ forces” and as a warning against “interference”, in reference to Western support for Taiwan.

Mr Lai, from the Democratic Progressive Party, was elected in January in a poll that Beijing portrayed as a choice between war and peace.

Officials in Taipei have indicated they were preparing for new Chinese military movements around the timing of the inauguration.

In August 2022, China launched larger four-day live-fire exercises after it was angered by a visit to the island by Nancy Pelosi, the former US House speaker.

A Chinese military expert told Chinese state TV the drills were partly aimed at rehearsing an economic blockade of the island.

Zhang Chi, a professor at Beijing’s China National Defense University, said the drills aimed to “strangle” Taiwan’s critical Kaohsiung port to “severely impact” its foreign trade.

He added that they would cut off the country’s “lifeline of energy imports” as well as “block the support lines that some US allies provide to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces.”

Analysts, regional diplomats and senior Taiwan officials note that so far the scale of operations around the island are smaller than those China staged in August 2022.


‘Real punishment may be yet to come’


Even though Thursday’s drills included mock air and sea strikes around the fortified Taiwanese islands of Kinmen and Matsu, close to the mainland Chinese coast, they were widely anticipated by Taiwanese and foreign officials.

Wen-Ti Sung, a Taipei-based analyst and fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, said: “Beijing is showing muscle in the immediate wake of Mr Lai’s presidential inauguration to signal Beijing’s displeasure and shape international understanding of Beijing’s narrative about Mr Lai.

“But this is just the ‘signal’. The real ‘punishment’ may be yet to come.”

A senior Taiwanese military official said the drills so far appeared to be repeats of other operations, involving provocatively crossing the so-called median line of the Taiwan Strait and mock attacks on vessels close to Taiwan’s 24-mile contiguous zone.

In a speech at a military base after the war games started, Mr Lai said: “I will stand on the front line with our brothers and sisters in the military to jointly defend national security.

“Faced with external challenges and threats, we will continue to defend the values of freedom and democracy, and safeguard peace and stability in the region.”