Xi flashes China's naval might with fleet review, Taiwan drills

China's sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (centre), sailing with other ships at sea, south of China's southern Hainan island on March 26, 2018.
China's sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (centre), sailing with other ships at sea, south of China's southern Hainan island on March 26, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - President Xi Jinping presided over the biggest naval fleet review since 1949 in the South China Sea and called on his nation to build a world-class navy, while the government scheduled a live-fire military drill in the Taiwan Straits for next week.

Xi urged the navy to stay on high alert, safeguard national interests and also strengthen the leadership of the Communist Party, according to a statement on the website of the Ministry of National Defence on Thursday (April 12).

The military exercise, to be held on April 18 off its coast opposite Taiwan, is the first to be disclosed in at least two years. It follows weeks after US President Donald Trump signed a law that would elevate the island's diplomatic status by allowing high-level official visits.

"The task of building a powerful people's navy has never been as urgent as it is today," Xi said during the review. "We will unswervingly accelerate the modernisation of the navy and strive to build it into a world-class navy."

Engaged in a trade spat that raised tensions between the world's two biggest economies in recent weeks, China on Wednesday warned the US against playing the "Taiwan card" in their disputes.

The status of the island is a sensitive issue for China's leadership. While Taiwan is self-ruled and enjoys American military support, China considers the island a province and has made acceptance of its "one China" policy a precondition for diplomatic ties - including with the US. Defeated Kuomintang forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of a Chinese civil war.

Cross-strait tensions have been steadily rising since Taiwan's 2016 election, which replaced a China-friendly government with one run by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

 
 

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has infuriated China by refusing to endorse the "one China" framework while offering to sign a US free-trade deal and buy more advanced American arms.

 

Trump's signing of the Taiwan Travel Act has angered the Chinese further.

The law encourages visits between the US and Taiwan "at all levels", specifically citing "Cabinet-level national security officials".

Such exchanges would effectively raise the diplomatic status of the democratically run island, which US officials have avoided since recognising the government in Beijing under the "one China" policy in 1979.

China has spent the past two decades building a "blue-water'' navy able to project force into the Indian and Pacific oceans, which surround the country's growing economic interests in Africa, the Middle East and South-east Asia. The country launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier last year, the second of as many as six such vessels.

Taiwan dismissed China's scheduled military exercise as an "annual routine", adding the island can ensure its own safety.

Separately, the Ministry of National Defence in Taipei said on Wednesday that Tsai will pay a series of military visits to test combat readiness amid changes in global security conditions.