China holds live-fire drills in Taiwan Strait

Beijing (AFP) - China held live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday but Taipei dismissed the exercises as "routine" after expected large-scale naval manoeuvres failed to materialise.

Beijing had announced the drills last week, further ramping up tensions following stark warnings against any independence moves by the self-ruled island which China sees as its sovereign territory.

Vessels had been told to avoid a certain area off the Chinese mainland's coast, triggering speculation that a flotilla spearheaded by China's sole aircraft carrier would take part in the exercise.

But Taiwan's defence ministry said Wednesday that the drills only involved land-based artillery conducting "routine" shooting practice.

Beijing has yet to release any information about the drill, which Chinese authorities had said would run until midnight, without giving any details about which military equipment or personnel would be involved.

"China deliberately released fake information to exaggerate it, to make it sound huge when in fact it's small," Taiwanese defence ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi told AFP.

"It's the cheapest way of verbal intimidation and sabre-rattling," Chen said, adding that such exercises had been held every year since 2007, except for last year.

The drills coincided with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's visit to Swaziland, one of Taipei's few remaining international allies.

China's Taiwan Affairs Office director Liu Jieyi had said Monday that the drill was "an action to safeguard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our motherland".

Relations between Beijing and Taipei have deteriorated since Tsai came to office in May 2016, largely because she has not embraced the position that Taiwan and China are one country.

China sees the democratically-governed island as a renegade part of its territory to be brought back into the fold and has not ruled out reunification by force.

Beijing has also been angered by Washington's arms sales to Taipei. China protested last month after President Donald Trump signed a bill allowing top-level US officials to travel to Taiwan.

Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979 but maintains trade relations with the island and is its main weapons supplier.

Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is traditionally pro-independence and her newly-appointed premier William Lai is a long-standing independence advocate.

Chinese President Xi Jinping warned in a speech on March 20 that "all acts and tricks to separate the country are doomed to fail".

That same day, China's sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

- 'Psychological warfare' -

"The mainland must create military pressure to let the other side know that no matter whether it happens gradually or they really declare independence, it is totally unacceptable," Song Zhongping, military commentator for Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, told AFP.

Song, a former lecturer at a People's Liberation Army university, had predicted that the Liaoning could participate in Wednesday's drill, as it "has a lot of advantages for resolving the Taiwan problem".

"It can effectively acquire control of the airspace, and even effectively block the US-Japanese alliance's strategy for intervening in China's plan to settle the Taiwan issue," he said.

A flotilla including the Liaoning has conducted combat training in the South China Sea in the past few days, the navy said on Tuesday.

But no Chinese navy ships were reported to be in the Taiwan Strait as of Wednesday afternoon.

Beijing has stepped up military patrols around Taiwan and used diplomatic pressure to isolate Taiwan internationally since Tsai took office.

Panama switched allegiance to China last year and Swaziland is one of Taiwan's 20 remaining allies.

The drill "is part of Beijing's psychological warfare against Taiwan, and possibly a means to divert attention from Tsai's visit abroad by compelling media to report on the military drills," said J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.

"Chinese media have played up the significance of these exercises, but in reality that will be relatively limited, and this time it's unlikely they will cross into Taiwan's side of the median line in the Taiwan Strait," Cole said.