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China to start live-fire military drills off Taiwan amid rising tensions

In a move that is ramping up tensions between China and Taiwan, the Chinese navy will start large scale live-fire military drills in the straits off Taiwan.

Key points:

  • The drills follow China's largest ever naval drills in the South China Sea
  • They are a sign of anger over America's moves to sell military hardware to Taiwan
  • Taiwan is responding by undertaking its own military exercises

The move comes off the back of the largest-ever military exercises by the Chinese navy in the contested South China Sea over the weekend.

In the rare display, China brought much of its naval hardware for the world to see — 10,000 personnel, 76 fighter jets, 48 naval vessels, a nuclear powered submarine and China's first aircraft carrier.

All overseen by China's President Xi Jinping, clad in military fatigues. Since coming to power in 2012, Mr Xi has seen significant growth in Chinese "blue-water" naval power.

"We are here to show the new image of the PLA navy to inspire strength in building a strong nation and military force," he said.

"It's the wish of the people and part of our Chinese dream of national rejuvenation."

The message from Mr Xi is that the South China Sea is China's, and the claim can now be enforced — and the naval power is soon to be projected further into the Pacific and beyond.

"The task for building a strong navy is urgent. We must strengthen through reform and technology and promote modernisation, to increase combat capacity and readiness," he said.

Taiwan a sticking point in US-China ties

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping shake hands in front of China and US flags.

The live fire drills that will last 16 hours in the Taiwan straits are to signal that China is angered by America's moves to sell military hardware to Taiwan, and the forging of greater ties between Taiwanese and American politicians.

Last month US President Donald Trump signed off on the Taiwan Travel Act, after unanimous votes in both houses of Congress.

The legislation is a departure from previous policy and recognises Taiwan as a "beacon of Democracy in Asia" and encourages travel between US and Taiwan by officials at all levels.

Previously, Washington did not allow top Taiwan officials to visit and barred its own top officials from travelling to the island.

Xu Qinduo from the Chinese government-backed Pangoal Institute said it was damaging for the US-China relationship.

"We see it as our core interest and there is no way Beijing is going to back off and make concession, not at all," he said.

"What the US has done recently is troubling and disturbing, the Travel Act and Washington supplying Taiwan with the technology and parts to build submarines.

"This could embolden Taiwan to do something more dangerous, and if it does, we have no choice but to take the island by force."

China determined to reunify

A Taiwan Navy S70 helicopter takes off from a frigate during a navy exercise off Taiwan.

The military exercises have many in Taiwan worried. Mr Xi wants reunification to be his legacy and taking Taiwan by force is an option.

Authorities in Beijing have long seen Taiwan, a self ruled island republic, as a breakaway province that forms an integral part of mainland China.

At the Party Congress last year, Mr Xi said "every inch of our great Motherland's territory cannot be separated from China", and state media followed that up by urging people "to prepare for a possible military clash".

Mr Xu said peaceful reunification would be the preferred way.

"It will be dangerous to underestimate how determined the Chinese people are and the Chinese government are in terms of achieving reunification with Taiwan," he said.

"We still have some way to go and if we compare to US, our navy is still in its infancy but it's developing fast. In the 1990s we focused on economic growth but now it's the military."

For its part, Taiwan has responded by undertaking its own military exercises and has stressed its national army can protect and defend the island from any threat.

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