As the People’s Liberation Army prepares to hold large-scale annual exercises at a training base in Inner Mongolia this week, speculation has been mounting as to whether the drills are aimed at “separatist forces” in Taiwan following the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) victory in the January elections.
Fueling the speculation are media reports that suggest a connection between the media attention 'Stride' 2016 Zhurihe (跨越-2016·朱日和) has been receiving in China and a visit by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to an Air Force Base in Hualien on May 29, her first as Taiwan’s commander in chief.
According to a report in the Chinese-language United Daily News, the extensive coverage given the military drills in state-run Chinese media and its airing—timed to coincide with President Tsai’s military inspection—has led “experts” to conclude that Beijing aims to deter “separatist forces” in Taiwan.
Although there is no doubt that many of the exercises held by the PLA annually are aimed at a Taiwan scenario—after all, last year’s drills, which were later aired on CCTV4, simulated an attack against a structure that bears a striking resemblance to the Presidential Office in Taipei—we should not read too much into their timing or draw connections between the media coverage they receive and Tsai’s election. While such linkage makes for dramatic headlines and good storytelling as part of supposedly rising tensions, the fact of the matter is that joint exercises on this scale are planned months ahead of time. PLA commanders, or the Central Military Commission, therefore could not have known but a few days ahead of time that President Tsai would visit an airbase on May 29. (It is very likely, however, that President Tsai knew that her visit to Hualien would coincide with the commencement of the drills in China.)
Additionally, while the decision to air media reports about military exercises, and when to do so, undoubtedly has a signaling component aimed at both China’s external challengers and a domestic audience, we should nevertheless avoid over-interpreting their significance. China has been gradually opening its bases and training exercises to state-run media as part of its efforts to be more transparent, something that the international community has long requested. Routine exercises are now announced ahead of time, a new transparency that, ironically, often has contributed to speculation about their timing and purported targets.
Thus, although it may be tempting to regard exercises as a warning to Taiwan’s “separatist forces”—and they have always been partly that—we should put them in their proper context. After all, 2015 Zhurihe and the simulated assault on a Presidential Office lookalike occurred at a time when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Kuomintang (KMT) still had about a year in office to go.
The crucial question to ask is whether the military exercises and the signaling that surrounds them points to possible escalatory action in reaction to political developments in Taiwan and the region. So far there is nothing to indicate that this is the case, and this year’s edition of Zhurihe should consequently be treated as a regular exercise, no matter its scale.
According to Chinese military expert Gary Li, the regular Zhurihe exercises at the 1,066-square kilometer base focus “largely on the rapid deployment of large field formations into unfamiliar territory and conducting confrontation drills.” In an analysis for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, Li noted a marked increase in the number of troops involved in 2014 Zhurihe (held between May 31 and July 28), with “no fewer than seven of the PLA’s top brigades from seven different group armies” participating.