China has launched a major military drill in the Yellow Sea near Taiwan just ahead of the Taiwanese president’s planned visit to Latin America.
The maneuvers kicked off on Friday in waters off Shandong province and would continue through Sunday, according to a statement released late in the day by China’s Defense Ministry.
The statement insisted that all boats and ships were banned from entering restricted zones off the northeastern city of Rizhao to the southeastern city of Qingdao — a major naval and commercial port and home to Chinese navy’s North Sea Fleet — for safety reasons.
The naval drill came two days before Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s trip on Sunday to Paraguay and Belize to boost ties with the only two Latin American nations that maintain ties with Taipei.
She will lead a delegation of top officials for the nine-day state visit through August 20 to the two of only 18 countries worldwide that still maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei.
According to Taiwan’s presidential office, Tsai’s delegation will also make transit stops in US cities of Los Angeles and Houston, in a move that will likely enrage Beijing amid its intensifying trade conflicts with Washington.
During a visit to three Pacific allies last year, Tsai transited through Hawaii and the US territory of Guam, provoking angry protests from Beijing.
The military drill come amid growing 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 regarded as part of China’s own territory, pending reunification.
Taiwan’s defense ministry announced that it was closely monitoring the Chinese naval exercise.
China’s state-run Global Times daily said the military drill was likely aimed at bolstering combat capabilities “in the event it has to deal with Taiwan separatists.”
The daily cited military expert Song Zhongping as saying that the drill would likely see the military practice how to combat “possible interference from Japan and the US, if the Chinese mainland is forced to deal with the Taiwan question.”
Beijing has bolstered its military presence near Taiwan, sailing its only operating aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait in January and March and holding extensive “encirclement” exercises nearby in recent months.
The heightened tensions have also led to the deployment of two US Navy warships through the strait earlier this month for the first time in nearly a year. Although Washington does not maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it is the island state’s primary arms supplier.
On Friday, Chinese forces deployed to the hotly contested South China Sea ordered a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft to “leave immediately” six times, reports said.
A US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane flew past China’s garrisons in the Spratly Islands, giving CNN reporters aboard the aircraft a view of Chinese facilities in the region.
Warning the aircraft that it was in Chinese territory, the Chinese military ordered the US Navy plane to “leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding.”
Six warnings were issued, according to CNN.
Beijing has said it is necessary for the Asian powerhouse to keep growing its military presence in the South China Sea in order to protect its sovereignty.