China has announced the immediate start of two days of military drills surrounding Taiwan, as “punishment” for what it called the “separatist acts” of holding an election and inaugurating a new president.

In response, Taiwan said sea, air and ground forces had been put on alert, and accused China of “irrational provocation and disruption of regional peace and stability”.

The drills are the first substantive response from China to the inauguration of Lai Ching-te as Taiwan’s fifth president on Monday, after winning the democratic election in January. Both Lai and his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen are from the pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive party (DPP), which Beijing considers to be separatists.

Chinese state media reported on Thursday morning that the drills, code-named Joint Sword-2024A, would involve units from the army, navy, air force and rocket force, operating in the Taiwan Strait, to the north, south and east of the main island. Units will also operate around the islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu, and Dongyin, which are all close to the Chinese mainland.

A spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Li Xi, said the drills would “serve as a strong punishment for the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence’ forces and a stern warning against the interference and provocation by external forces”, state media agency Xinhua reported.

“The current military exercise not only does not help peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, but also highlights the hegemonic nature of the [Chinese Communist party],” Taiwan’s ministry of defence said.

Analysts said the name of the exercise, suffixed “2024A” suggested more drills targeting Taiwan could be expected this year.

“This feels like a prelude to more and bigger military drills to come,” said Wen-ti Sung, a political analyst and China expert at the Australian National University, on X.

“This is a signal to shape international narratives. The real ‘punishment’ against Taiwan may be yet to come, for it takes time.”

Beijing claims Taiwan is a province of China, and has vowed to annex it, by force if necessary. Taiwan’s government and people overwhelmingly reject the prospect of CCP rule, and Taiwan’s leaders have vowed to increase deterrence measures and boost defences, while urging China to cease its threats and return to dialogue.

In recent years, China has heightened its pressure on Taiwan, with increased air force incursions into its air defence identification zone, economic coercion, and cognitive warfare, designed to convince Taiwan to accept a Chinese takeover without war.

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The Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) released demonstration map for Joint Sword-2024A military drills conducted surrounding Taiwan Island

&mdash; China Xinhua News (@XHNews) May 23, 2024

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Maps of the drill areas published on Thursday morning showed the drills operating in similar areas as in 2022, when China surrounded Taiwan with live-fire exercises in response to a visit to Taipei by the then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi. However, analysts noted the new addition of Taiwan’s offshore islands, suggesting the PLA was practising new strategies.

In 2023, China again staged large-scale drills, in response to a meeting in the US between president Tsai and US Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Those drills escalated the tactics displayed in 2022, simulating a blockade of Taiwan and pre-invasion attacks.

Deputy Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, Lt Gen Stephen Sklenka, told press on Thursday that China’s threats needed to be taken seriously, but an attack or invasion was not inevitable or imminent.

This year Kinmen and Matsu, islands close to the Chinese mainland, have been increasingly targeted by Chinese Coast Guard patrols.

After a fatal collision between an illegal Chinese fishing boat and a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel near Kinmen in February, China responded with increased patrols and an explicit rejection of maritime borders which they had until then tacitly respected. Patrols through Kinmen’s restricted waters have since become more consistent, in what some analysts say is China’s strategy of shrinking Taiwan’s territorial space and normalising incursions.

The coast guard also appeared to be involved in drills on Thursday, with the Fujian branch announcing it was running law enforcement drills in the same areas.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said on Thursday his government would contact Beijing to “directly and clearly” communicate to Beijing the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Japan has a strong relationship with Taiwan and is a close ally of the US. It has grown more vocal in its concerns about China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait, in part because of Japanese territory that is close to Taiwan. During the Pelosi drills, Tokyo lodged strong complaints with Beijing over the firing of PLA missiles across the island of Taiwan and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

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