By Yimou Lee
TAIPEI (Reuters) -China is likely to launch military drills next week near Taiwan, using Vice President William Lai’s stopovers in the United States as a pretext to intimidate voters ahead of an election next year and make them “fear war,” Taiwanese officials said.
The U.S. transits by Lai, who is the front-runner for Taiwan’s presidential vote in January, have already drawn Beijing’s ire. The United States has described the stopovers as routine and no reason for China to take “provocative” action.
Beijing could conduct manoeuvres similar to ones it held in April to “militarily intimidate” Taiwan voters as well as countries in the region, said officials briefed on the matter, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The April exercises included practice for blockades in an angry response to a meeting between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy during Tsai’s stopover in Los Angeles.
“It is fairly likely that they could use it as a pretext and announce ‘drills’ around the Taiwan Strait,” said one of the sources, a senior official familiar with Taiwan’s security planning.
“They want to build up the fear of war and make Taiwanese vote in favour of their choice,” the official said.
Lai will stop in New York on Saturday on his way to Paraguay and in San Francisco on Wednesday on his way back to Taiwan. He is going to Paraguay, which retains formal ties with Taiwan, for the inauguration of its new president.
Neither China’s defence ministry nor its Taiwan Affairs Office responded to a request for comment, though the government has repeatedly condemned the visit. China’s ambassador to the U.S. said last month it was his country’s “priority” to stop the visit.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration said on Friday that military exercises would take place off the coast of the eastern city of Ningbo – around 500 km (310 miles) to the north of Taipei – from Saturday to Monday, but did not give details.
Shortly after that statement was released, Taiwan’s defence ministry said it will continue to monitor Chinese drills and that people should remain calm in the face of China “damaging peace and stability”.
China has a particular dislike of Lai who has in the past described himself as a “practical worker for Taiwan independence”. Lai has repeatedly said during the election campaign he does not seek to change the status quo.
The Taiwanese official said Beijing could “upgrade” the scale of its “combat readiness patrols” near Taiwan that the People’s Liberation Army has staged frequently in recent months by sending warships and aircraft close to the island that China claims as its territory.
The drills could start shortly after Lai’s stopover in San Francisco and could be part of upcoming annual exercises by China’s Eastern Theatre Command, which is responsible for military activity in the area, the official said, citing an analysis of intelligence.
Three U.S.-based sources told Reuters the Biden administration was eager to keep Lai’s visit low-profile so as not to stoke tension across the Taiwan Strait before its election, as well as to preserve the recent momentum in engagement with senior Chinese officials.
That includes the prospect of a visit to the United States by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, which could pave the way for a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The State Department told Reuters that, consistent with past transits, Lai would meet the chair of the Virginia-based American Institute in Taiwan, a U.S. government-run non-profit that carries out unofficial relations with Taiwan.
The post is held by Laura Rosenberger, who until early 2023 was a senior official on Biden’s National Security Council handling policy toward China.
But neither Taiwan nor the U.S. have given further details of Lai’s schedule on his stopovers.
Taiwan believes the scale of the exercises could be smaller than those in April, the Taiwanese official said.
Chinese war planes or ships, however, could still cross the Taiwan Strait’s median line and approach close to the island’s contiguous zone that is 24 nautical miles, according to the official and another official briefed on the matter.
“We have made all the preparations,” the first official said.
Chinese state television this month ran an eight-part series on the People’s Liberation Army, some of which focused on Taiwan.
In one episode, an officer on a Chinese warship, apparently broadcasting a warning to a Taiwanese vessel, says: “Your so-called 24 nautical mile line does not exist”.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday said China had “no reason” to raise tension over Lai’s routine stopovers.
“If China uses this to take provocative actions, it will be China that damages regional peace and security, not Taiwan or the United States,” ministry spokesman Jeff Liu told reporters.
Taipei-based diplomats were divided on China’s likely reaction, according to eight diplomatic and foreign security sources.
One said Beijing and Washington’s bid to improve relations could temper China’s response.
But a senior foreign security source said Beijing would have to put on a show of force given its angry denouncements of the trip.
“They have pretty much backed themselves into a corner and will have to do something,” the source told Reuters.
(Reporting By Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Liz Lee in Beijing, and Michael Martina in Washington; Editing by Robert Birsel and Richard Chang)