China launches ‘punishment’ drills around Taiwan after inauguration of new president

Dozens of Chinese fighter jets carrying live missiles have carried out mock strikes against Taiwanese targets, China’s military has said, on the first day of surprise military drills announced as “punishment” after Taiwan inaugurated its new president.

On Thursday morning the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced the immediate beginning of two days of drills, codenamed Joint Sword-2024A, surrounding Taiwan and its islands near the Chinese border.

It said the drills were in direct response to what it called “separatist acts” by Taiwan’s government. On Monday Lai Ching-te was inaugurated as Taiwan’s newest president, after winning democratic elections in January.

Chinese state media said jets loaded with missiles successfully practised strikes against “high-value military targets” during the drills, which involved units from the army, navy, air force and rocket force and the Chinese coastguard. Propaganda images spreading online and republished by state media also mentioned China’s land-based Dongfeng ballistic missiles, but did not say if they would be used.

Related: China warns of reprisals against Taiwan after president’s inauguration speech

Taiwan’s defence ministry said it detected 15 PLA warships around the territory’s perimeter, 16 marine police vessels and 49 warplanes, of which 35 crossed the median line, the de facto border between China and Taiwan. It said there were no live-fire exercises in the sea and Chinese authorities did not declare any no-fly zones. PLA navy vessels came within 24 nautical miles of Taiwan’s main island and remained there on Thursday evening, it said.

“I have confidence in the military,” Lai said at a military base on Thursday. “I also ask all my compatriots to rest assured.”

Taiwan’s presidential office said the drills threatened Taiwan’s freedom and democracy, and its defence ministry accused China of “irrational provocation and disruption of regional peace and stability”.

The defence ministry said its forces had been put on alert, base security strengthened, and air defence and missile forces ordered to monitor possible targets. It was also preparing for cognitive warfare operations.

“We seek no conflicts but we will not shy away from one. We have the confidence to safeguard our national security,” it said.

The drills are the first substantive response from China to the inauguration of Lai, who used his speech to affirm Taiwan’s sovereignty, promise to defend it, and urge China to cease hostilities. Lai and his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, are from the pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive party (DPP), which Beijing considers separatist.

A PLA spokesperson, Li Xi, said the drills would “serve as a strong punishment for the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence’ forces and a stern warning against the interference and provocation by external forces”, the state media agency Xinhua reported.

The state broadcaster said Lai’s speech was “extremely harmful” and that the drills, which it called “countermeasures”, were “legitimate, legal and necessary”.

Analysts said the name of the exercise, suffixed “2024A”, suggested more drills targeting Taiwan could be expected this year.

“This is a signal to shape international narratives,” said Wen-ti Sung, a political analyst and China expert at the Australian National University, on X. “The real ‘punishment’ against Taiwan may be yet to come, for it takes time.”

Beijing claims Taiwan is a province of China and has vowed to annex it, by force if necessary. Taiwan’s government and people overwhelmingly reject the prospect of CCP rule, and Taiwan’s leaders have vowed to increase deterrence measures and boost defences, while urging China to cease its threats and return to dialogue.

In recent years China has heightened its pressure on Taiwan, with increased air force incursions into its air defence identification zone, economic coercion, and cognitive warfare, designed to convince Taiwan to accept a Chinese takeover without war.

Maps of the drill areas published on Thursday morning showed them operating in similar areas as in 2022, when China surrounded Taiwan with live-fire exercises in response to a visit to Taipei by the then US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. However, analysts noted the addition of Taiwan’s offshore islands, suggesting the PLA was practising new strategies.

In 2023, China again staged large-scale drills in response to a meeting in the US between Tsai and the then US House speaker, Kevin McCarthy. Those drills escalated the tactics displayed in 2022, simulating a blockade of Taiwan and pre-invasion attacks.

On Tuesday, China’s Taiwan affairs office warned of undefined “countermeasures” to Lai’s inauguration speech. Any speech by a president belonging to the DPP, short of capitulating to Beijing’s position that Taiwan belongs to China, was likely to provoke an angry response. Military drills like those launched on Tuesday take extensive planning and these were probably prepared for long before Lai’s address.

The deputy commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, Lt Gen Stephen Sklenka, told press in Canberra on Thursday that China’s threats needed to be taken seriously but an attack or invasion was not inevitable or imminent. He said foreign governments, particularly those in this region, had to publicly condemn China’s actions.

“The normalisation of abnormal actions, that’s what’s happening. Just because we expect that behaviour doesn’t mean we shouldn’t condemn it,” Sklenka said. “So it is concerning, but I also believe in my heart of hearts a conflict between our two nations is not inevitable and it’s not a foregone conclusion.”

China’s coastguard was also involved in Thursday’s exercises, with the Fujian branch announcing law enforcement drills around Taiwan’s offshore islands near China’s mainland coastline. This year Kinmen and Matsu, islands close to the Chinese mainland, have been increasingly targeted by Chinese coastguard patrols.

After a fatal collision between an illegal Chinese fishing boat and a Taiwanese coastguard vessel near Kinmen in February, China responded with increased patrols and an explicit rejection of maritime borders, which it had until then tacitly respected. Patrols through Kinmen’s restricted waters have since become more consistent, in what some analysts say is China’s strategy of shrinking Taiwan’s territorial space and normalising incursions.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said on Thursday his government would contact Beijing to “directly and clearly” communicate the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan strait.

Japan has a strong relationship with Taiwan and is a close ally of the US. It has grown more vocal in its concerns about China’s actions in the Taiwan strait, in part because of Japanese territory that is close to Taiwan. During the Pelosi drills, Tokyo lodged strong complaints with Beijing over the firing of PLA missiles across the island of Taiwan and into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Representatives from South Korea, Australia and the US also called for peace, with Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, warning that “the risk of an accident, and potential escalation, is growing”.