The live-fire military drills which the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) held yesterday have garnered a great deal of media attention this week both in Taiwan and around the world.
They are also creating a fair amount of panic among some people (those on social media primarily) who have implied that they could be a precursor to further military action against Taiwan. Yet, they passed off without incident and a cursory look through today’s media finds little or no mention of them. The appearance now is of an event which was all bluster, but ultimately no bite.
This, of course, is precisely the effect that the Chinese Communist Party intended for the drills. And it is precisely why the Taiwanese Government response to the drills has been so relaxed and why President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) had no hesitation to continue her official trip to Africa.
These drills were little more than the latest political game between the CCP, the Chinese people, and to a lesser extent, Taiwan. But, before we take a closer look at the ridiculous rhetoric which has been used to describe these drills in the media and on social media, lets first clarify the facts as best we can.
Live Fire Drills – a fact check
The PLA Navy holds regular live drills, so the fact that they chose to do so again is no great surprise.
If you believe the media talk of drills being held in the Taiwan Strait, you could easily be led to think that they were taking place on the very edge of Taiwanese territorial waters. Actually, they were being held just a few nautical miles off the Chinese coast and in Chinese territorial waters.
How do we know this? Well, the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration announced an exclusion zone for between 8am and Midnight on April 18, when the drills will take place. This exclusion zone is just five miles wide, ten miles long, and tells us that the drill will take place just outside Quanzhou Bay, off Fujian Province.
From this alone, we can reach two main conclusions. Firstly, the scale of the drill is going to be extremely small and secondly, China was very keen to ensure that no-one with even a basic understanding of military drills and cross-straits relations is in any doubt that this drill is intended neither as a threat either to Taiwanese territorial waters or international waters in the Strait.
There have been no official reports about the drill, but Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense has described them as being regular artillery exercises. It is also believed that, in the end, no PLA Navy Warships took part in the drill.
A local resident close to where the drill was being held is reported in the South China Morning Post as saying the situation within the exclusion zone was “quiet,”which is not exactly a word used often to describe a military drill.
Live Fire Drills – the rhetoric
So, given the facts, why is the international media, and for that matter social media, portraying the drills as being so important. The answer is quite simply that the CCP and their army of online trolls have chosen to give that impression.
Chinese media coverage in the run-up to the drills was chest-beatingly robust. The drills were described as being “a check” against Taiwanese independence and it was said that they were a "show of strength" designed to "deter" both Taiwan and the U.S. from pursuing any activity which goes against the interest of China.
By China, what is actually meant is the Chinese Communist Party’s interests and it is important to underline the fact that, in all likelihood, these drills were all about the CCP and their relations with, and control of, the Chinese people.
This type of nationalist rhetoric is a key pillar in their strategy to retain power in China. Despite the CCPs claims that the drills were intended as a message to the Tsai Government in Taipei, it seems far more likely that they were little more than the next stage of the ongoing political game the CCP plays, in which it likes to portray the current Taiwan government as "a threat to Chinese sovereignty" of Taiwan.
There has been considerable media coverage in China over comments made by Taiwan Premier William Lai about independence. There have been loud calls from CCP mouthpieces for a response to these comments from the Chinese regime and the likelihood appears to be that this drill was intended to be it.
Indeed, the PLA official quoted in the South China Morning Post appears to support this theory as well, being quoted as saying “Beijing wanted to send a warning to the separatists and the independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen administration, not provoke ordinary people’s emotions.”
That is exactly what CCP loyalists have been calling for and it seems that the party has delivered.
Taiwan’s laudably restrained response
In the circumstances, the Taiwanese Government has managed the situation impressively. While ensuring that the Taiwanese people were in no doubt that Taiwan could defend itself (it is surely no coincidence that announcement of an ‘airstrike alarm’ system was made this Monday), they did a great job of playing down the incident and making it clear to the people that there was nothing to be concerned about.
President Tsai Ing-wen called for calm and assured her people that the drills would be closely monitored. She also stressed yet again her desire for a peaceful and stable relationship with China.
Importantly, she refused to cancel her planned trip to Africa, which was absolutely the right thing to do. Canceling could have suggested the situation was much more serious than it was, led to public panic, and ultimately played right into the CCPs hands.
Meanwhile, Chinese rhetoric was described by DPP lawmakers as being “amplified”, “saber-rattling” and “aimed at terrorizing the Taiwanese.”Of course, the KMT, keen to try and attack the Tsai government on the issue, fell right into the CCPs hands once again by trying to play up the severity of the situation.
But the Taiwanese Government response has proved absolutely right and, after all the rhetoric we have seen in the past few days, both the CCP and (to a lesser extent) the KMT look a bit silly at the moment.
Because make no mistake, these drills were not in any way a threat to Taiwan. They were a routine exercise which the CCP decided to hype up for their own domestic political purposes. They were, to use a popular political term at the moment, fake news.
But, in China, where almost all news is fake, they will no doubt have the desired effect. The impact of the drills will no doubt be amplified in the state-controlled media and welcomed by CCP loyalists. The effect they had in Taiwan will also most likely be played-up, or perhaps even just made up.
And of course, this is exactly what the CCP was most likely trying to achieve in the first place. They have achieved their propaganda objectives, the Taiwanese government has come out of the incident looking like the mature and capable regime it is, and in a sense, everyone is a winner.
And now we wait to see what the CCP’s next grand political game will be. Chances are we will not have to wait long.