PLA drill in South China Sea about combat readiness, not seizing Taiwanese islands, experts say

Minnie Chan

Aircraft carriers from the PLA Navy are set to take part in combat readiness exercises this summer in the South China Sea, and while the drills are likely to raise concerns in Taipei, their aim is not to seize Taiwan-controlled territory, military observers say.

Earlier this month, Japan’s Kyodo News reported that the PLA was planning a large-scale beach landing exercise near Hainan province in August, simulating the takeover of the Pratas Islands – a group of three atolls in the north of the South China Sea that are controlled by Taiwan.

“An aircraft carrier strike group will pass through the Pratas Islands on its way to the exercise site to the southeast of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea,” said a military insider, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

It was not clear whether both the Liaoning – the PLA’s only aircraft carrier to have achieved initial operating capability – and the Shandong, which was commissioned at the end of last year, would take part in the drills, or just one of them, the person said.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, or its sister ship, the Shandong, is expected to be involved in this summer’s drills. Photo: Handout

While other parts of the naval flotilla would be involved in landing exercises at a training site near Hainan, about 600km (370 miles) to the southwest of the Pratas – also known as the Dongsha or Tungsha Islands – the exercises would not be a rehearsal for seizing them, he said.

“There are just 200 Taiwanese troops stationed on the Pratas, so it doesn’t make sense for the PLA to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group to take such a small island,” he said, adding that the landing exercises were simply part of the military’s regular training programme.

“The PLA has to test all of its aircraft, warships and weaponry in the South China Sea to measure its combat readiness and fighting capabilities in the tropical waters.”

Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, said the main reason the PLA would not be looking to seize any Taiwan-controlled islands in the disputed waters was that they no longer held the same strategic value for Beijing.

“Both the Pratas and Taiping Island in the Spratly chain have lost their geostrategic importance since the mainland developed eight artificial islands [in the South China Sea],” he said.

“Beijing has three 3,000-metre airstrips on its man-made islands nearby, and they can each accommodate all kinds of [military and civilian] aircraft.”

Taiwan no longer even had fighter jets on Pratas or Taiping, Lu said.

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Chi Le-yi, a military observer based in Taipei, said the upcoming drills and general increase in naval and air force activity were evidence of Beijing’s plan to militarise the entire region.

“The landing exercise is part of the PLA navy’s regular training to achieve Beijing’s plan to bring the South China Sea under its control,” he said.

“A landing drill could be seen as preparation for an attack on Taiwan, but it is more to do with the PLA building up its combat systems for any possible conflict in the South China Sea.”

Song Zhongping, a military commentator based in Hong Kong, said that this summer’s drills near Hainan would also be an extension of the PLA’s 11-week exercise in Bohai Bay, in the northern reaches of the Yellow Sea, that got under way on May 15.

“The two naval exercises are intended as a warning to [Taiwan’s President] Tsai [Ing-wen] and the United States that the PLA is well prepared when it comes to issues related to Taiwan and the South China Sea,” he said.

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