China’s military began drills around Taiwan on Saturday, saying it was a “serious warning” to separatist forces, in an angry and widely expected response to a visit of Vice President William Lai to the United States.
Lai, the front-runner to be Taiwan’s next president at elections in January, returned from the United States on Friday, where he officially made only stopovers on his way to and from Paraguay, though he gave speeches while in the country.
China views democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory, despite the strong objections of the island’s government.
The People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theatre Command, which has responsibility for the area around Taiwan, said in a brief statement it was carrying out joint naval and air combat readiness patrols around the island.
It said it was also holding joint exercises and training of naval and air forces, focusing on subjects such as ship-aircraft co-ordination and seizing control, to test the forces’ “actual combat capabilities.”
“This is a serious warning against Taiwan independence separatist forces colluding with external forces to provoke,” it said.
There was no immediate response from Taiwan’s government.
Taiwanese officials had said China was likely to conduct military exercises this week near the island, using Lai’s U.S. stopovers as a pretext to intimidate voters ahead of next year’s presidential election and make them “fear war.”
China has a particular dislike of Lai for his previous comments that he was a “practical worker for Taiwan independence.” On the campaign trail, however, he has pledged to keep the status quo and repeatedly offered talks with Beijing.
Shortly before the military’s announcement, the Taiwan Work Office of China’s ruling Communist Party said Lai was “shamelessly” trying to “rely on the United States to seek independence.”
Lai has “stubbornly stuck to the Taiwan independence stance” and his U.S. stopovers were “a disguise he used to sell out the interests of Taiwan in order to seek gains in the local election through dishonest moves,” it said.
The United States, like most countries, has no formal ties with Taiwan but is its strongest international backer, bound by law to provide the island with the means to defend itself.
China has over the past three years ramped up military pressure on Taiwan, including sending military aircraft and warships near the island.
In April, China staged war games around Taiwan after President Tsai Ing-wen returned from California, where she met U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on a stopover on her way back from Central America.