Pichi Chuang / Reuters

Taiwan stages military drills on island off Chinese coast

Actions follow Chinese exercises just days after election of independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan's president

Taiwan held small-scale military drills on the Kinmen island it controls just off the Chinese coast Tuesday, in a renewed signal of its determination to defend itself from Chinese threats.

The head of Kinmen's defense command said the beach landing exercise and simulated attack by the navy's elite "frogman" commandos were to show the ability of the armed forces to provide security in the Taiwan Strait ahead of next month's Lunar New Year holiday.

The drills follow live-fire exercises held by China in the area just days after Taiwanese voters elected independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen as president on Jan. 16. The unit involved in those exercises, the 31st Group Army, is charged with responding to contingencies involving Taiwan and is based in the city of Xiamen, directly across a narrow waterway from Kinmen.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory and threatens to use force to bring the island under its control.

Although Tsai has pledged to maintain the status quo with Beijing, relations are widely expected to cool as the DPP is traditionally a pro-independence party. It does not recognize that Taiwan is part of "one China" — a principle insisted upon by Beijing. 

The Kinmen commander, Hau Yi-he, said no unusual Chinese military movements had been detected since the election and Taiwan's forces would continue with routine drills.

"We have been monitoring their (China's) military movements. So far, it has remained normal," Hau told The Associated Press during a visit to the island organized by Taiwan's Defense Ministry.

Taiwan retained Kinmen and the Matsu island group to the north as frontline defense outposts for Nationalist forces that retreated to Taiwan following the Communists' 1949 sweep to power in China's civil war.

Reporters were later flown to an air base in the southern county of Chiayi that is home to some of the air force's F-16A/B fighter jets, along with an air rescue group. Taiwan has sought to purchase the more advanced F-16C/D version of the plane from the U.S., a bid that, if successful, would be sure to elicit a furious response from Beijing.

While China in recent years has promoted the concept of peaceful unification rather than outright invasion, it has refused to drop its military threat and passed a law in 2005 laying out the conditions under which it would attack. While not setting a timetable, Chinese President Xi Jinping has told visitors he doesn't wish the issue of independence to be put off for future generations.

Writing Monday in the Communist Party newspaper Global Times, commentator and retired general Luo Yuan said China would never bend in its determination to realize unification, regardless of developments on Taiwan.

"As long as 'peace' has not died, we will give 100 percent," wrote Luo, whose views reflect a popular strain of thinking among nationalist Chinese. "But if the 'Taiwan independence' elements force us into a corner, then we have no other choice but 'unification by force.'" 

Meanwhile, the U.S. has voiced criticism over outgoing Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's planned trip to the Taiwanese-held island of Itu Aba in the disputed South China Sea, with one U.S. official calling it "extremely unhelpful."

Ma's office earlier announced that the president, who steps down in May, would fly to Itu Aba on Thursday to offer Chinese New Year wishes to residents on the island, mainly Taiwanese coastguard personnel and environmental scholars.

But Ma's one-day visit to Itu Aba, known as Taiping in Taiwan, comes amid growing international concern over rising tensions in the waterway and quickly drew the ire of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei in the absence of formal diplomatic ties.

"We are disappointed that President Ma Ying-jeou plans to travel to Taiping Island," AIT spokeswoman Sonia Urbom said in an email to Reuters. "Such an action is extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea."

Wire services 

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