- Elite forces mobilised for training exercise, but Beijing describes them as 'routine drills' to avoid antagonising America
China has mobilised some of its elite military forces for an exercise near the Taiwan Strait but has softened its rhetoric to avoid antagonising the United States, military analysts said on Monday.
The Military of Defence announced on Sunday that the People's Liberation Army was staging "routine drills" close to the Taiwan Strait " less than a week after Washington approved the sale of US$2.2 billion worth of military equipment to Taiwan and following a visit by the island's president, Tsai Ing-wen, to New York.
Beijing regards the self-ruled island as a renegade province and has warned the US not to cross its red lines by fostering formal relations with Taipei.
According to the announcement by the Ministry of Defence, the exercises are part of the PLA's annual plans and affect the air space and waters "along China's southeast coast".
Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said "China's southeast coast" consists of the provinces of Zhejiang and Fujian and runs from the East China Sea to the Taiwan Strait.
"The exercises involve the army, navy, air force, the rocket force, and the strategic support force," Zhou said. "(They) are meant to strengthen the PLA's joint operations."
Song Zhongping, who works as a military analyst for Hong Kong's Phoenix Television, added that the exercises would cover all the islands and reefs off the coast of Zhejiang and Fujian and would be held close to the Taiwan Strait and Japan's Naha airbase on Okinawa.
"The drills aren't just targeting Tsai but also US military forces and their allies including the US-Japan alliance," said Song.
"With the participation of the strategic support force, it is possible that the PLA navy and air force will conduct live-fire tests with missiles."
Song, a former instructor for China's support force, said that the rocket force might conduct simulated precision strike training on some reefs or moving targets at the sea.
"The rocket force will go to the South China Sea if they are to conduct live-fire drills," he said.
Military enthusiasts, meanwhile, reported that the 72nd Group Army, which is based in Huzhou in Zhejiang province, has dispatched amphibious fighting vehicles to coastal areas suggesting the drills would also involve landing training and were of a bigger scale than normal exercises.
"The armoured force of the 72nd Group Army is one of the most outstanding elite amphibious fighting forces of the PLA," said Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian military magazine Kanwa Asian Defence.
Chang added that when President Xi Jinping started downsizing the PLA in 2016, the 72nd group was one of the units kept intact.
Chang also said that the ministry has deliberately played down the exercises by describing them as "routine drills" to avoid upsetting the US at a time when trade talks are continuing.
"The fact that the PLA called them 'routine drills' shows Beijing doesn't want to irritate Washington as both sides have just decided to resume their (trade) negotiations," Chang said.
Another Beijing-based military insider echoed Chang's suggestion, saying that the ministry's announcement used the phrase"southeast coast" instead of the "Taiwan Strait" to play down the sensitivity of the drills.
"Beijing needs to send a warning to Tsai Ing-wen and other independence leaning forces (in Taiwan), but it doesn't want the drills to upset the negotiations with the US," said the insider, who requested anonymity.
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