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China kicks off ‘major’ military exercises as Taiwan leader prepares for trip abroad to salvage few remaining allies

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The Chinese military has kicked off “major” exercises in the Yellow Sea ahead of Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen’s planned departure Sunday for Paraguay, the only Taiwanese ally in South America, and the tiny Central American country of Belize.

China’s Defense Ministry said late Friday that the military exercises began Friday in waters off Shandong province and would run through Sunday. The ministry, citing a notice from the China Maritime Safety Administration, said that all boats and ships were banned from entering restricted zones off the northeastern city of Rizhao to the southeastern city of Qingdao, both in Shandong, for safety reasons. Qingdao is a major naval and commercial port, and home to the Chinese navy’s North Sea Fleet.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said Friday that it was closely monitoring the exercises.

China’s state-run Global Times tabloid said Friday that the military exercises were likely aimed at bolstering combat capabilities “in the event it has to deal with Taiwan separatists.”

“Previous exercises in the East China Sea aimed at dealing with Taiwan separatists and the purpose has not changed for exercises taking place in the Yellow Sea,” the hawkish paper quoted Song Zhongping, a military expert, as saying. Song also said that the drill would likely see the military practice how to combat “possible interference from Japan and the U.S., if the Chinese mainland is forced to deal with the Taiwan question.”

The military drills come amid heightened tensions between Taiwan and China, which has warned that it will defend — by force if necessary — its “One China” principle under which the self-ruling island is seen as part of China’s own territory, awaiting reunification.

On Sunday, Taiwan’s Tsai will lead a delegation of top officials for the nine-day state visit, which runs through Aug. 20 to Paraguay and Belize — two of just 18 countries that have diplomatic relations with Taipei. In a move likely to anger Beijing, her delegation will also make transit stops in Los Angeles and Houston, respectively, on the outbound and return legs of the trip, the presidential office said in a statement.

Typically, Taiwan does not provide detailed itineraries when officials travel abroad, fearing China’s ability to disrupt their visits. During a visit to three Pacific allies last year, Tsai transited through Hawaii and the U.S. territory of Guam, prompting angry protests from Beijing.

This time, however, Taipei has publicized the trip as it works to counter Beijing’s growing military and diplomatic squeeze.

Last month, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army conducted a live-fire drill in the East China Sea in an area “similar in size to the island of Taiwan.” In a report headlined “PLA drill in East China Sea ‘tailored for Taiwan separatists,’ ” the Global Times alluded to the exercise as being a message to Taipei, calling it a “joint operation with high complexity” designed “to simulate real combat.”

China has bolstered its military presence near Taiwan, sailing its sole operating aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in January and March and holding large-scale “encirclement” exercises nearby in recent months.

The heightened tensions have even seen the U.S. Navy dispatch two warships through the strait earlier this month for the first time in about a year. Although the U.S. does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it is the island state’s most powerful ally and top arms supplier.

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© 2018 the Japan Times (Tokyo)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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