Taiwan to raise defence spending as China details combat drills

File photo. Chinese J-20 'Chengdu' stealth fighter jet performs during a flying display on the first day of a military airshow in Zhuhai, Guangzhou province, China, 06 November 2018. [Aleksandar Plavevski/EPA/EFE]

Taiwan unveiled a T$42.1 billion ($1.4 billion) increase for next year’s planned defence spending on Thursday (13 August), as China announced details of its latest combat drills near the democratic island.

China has stepped up its military activity near Taiwan. On Monday Taiwan, said Chinese fighters briefly crossed the sensitive median line of the Taiwan Strait, the same day US health chief Alex Azar met President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei. China had denounced Azar’s trip.

Tsai’s Cabinet is proposing T$453.4 billion in military spending for the year starting in January, versus T$411.3 billion budgeted for this year, up 10.2%, according to Reuters calculations.

About three hours after the budget announcement, China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theatre Command said its forces had in recent days carried out combat drills in the Taiwan Strait and to the north and south of the island, implying they were aimed at Azar’s trip.

“Recently, a certain large country has continued to make negative moves on Taiwan-related issues, sending serious wrong signals to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces, and seriously threatening the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait,” it said.

“The theatre command’s organising of patrols and exercises are necessary actions taken in response to the current security situation across the Taiwan Strait and to safeguard national sovereignty,” the statement added.

Tsai has made modernising Taiwan’s armed forces and increasing defence spending a priority.

The budget must be approved by lawmakers, though Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party has a large majority in the legislature, making it unlikely to be blocked.

China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, and has denounced the United States for arms sales to the island. Washington is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.

Taiwan is in discussions with the United States to acquire sea mines to deter amphibious landings as well as cruise missiles for coastal defence, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to United States said on Wednesday.

Last year, the US State Department approved arms sales worth US$10 billion for Taiwan, including 106 M1A2 Abrams tanks and 66 F-16V fighter jets.

Taiwan’s military is well armed, but dwarfed by that of China’s, which is adding advanced equipment like stealthy fighter jets and aircraft carriers.

Difficult relations

China views democratic Taiwan as merely a wayward Chinese province and its “sacred” territory, awaiting the day the island can be brought under its control – peacefully or militarily – with no right to state-to-state relations.

China enacted an anti-secession law in 2005 that mandates the use of force if the government judges Taiwan to have declared independence, though it says “peaceful reunification” is its aim.

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party supports the island’s separate identity from China and the right of Taiwan’s people to decide their own future. President Tsai Ing-wen says Taiwan already is an independent country called the Republic of China, the island’s formal name.

The party says that the People’s Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan and that its unelected government has no right to speak for Taiwan’s people, who choose their own leaders.

Relations between Beijing and Washington have soured since Trump took office in 2017, with Taiwan just one of a number of destabilising factors. China calls Taiwan the most important, most sensitive issue in its relations with the United States.

The United States has ramped up arms sales to Taiwan, including tanks and fighter jets, and has taken an increasingly strident position in supporting Taiwan’s role on the international stage, particularly at the World Health Organization (WHO).

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