Taiwan president joins naval drill a day after huge China exercise

SUAO, Taiwan (Reuters) - Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen presided over a military drill by the self-ruled island’s navy on Friday for the first time since she took office in 2016, a day after diplomatic rival China held a large-scale naval display.

Slideshow ( 14 images )

Taiwan’s drill did not involve live fire. Beijing announced plans to hold live-fire military drills in the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday.

China claims self-ruled Taiwan as its sacred territory, under its “one China” policy, and Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring what it sees as a wayward province under its control.

On Thursday, President Xi Jinping presided over the Chinese navy’s largest-ever military display, state media reported, the country’s latest show of force in the disputed South China Sea.

Tsai on Friday boarded a warship off Suao on the east coast to observe the Taiwan drill, which the defence ministry said aimed to test the military’s rapid response capability to defend Taiwan.

“I believe our nationals should feel very confident about our army’s determination to defend and protect our country,” Tsai, who is chief commander of Taiwan’s armed forces, said aboard the warship after the drill.

Asked by a reporter if the event was aimed at competing with Xi, Tsai urged people “not to over-read” the situation, saying her inspection was just the first of a series.

The army could safeguard Taiwan, she said, adding that her trip to the southern African nation of Swaziland, set from Tuesday to April 21, would not be affected by China’s plans for live-fire drills.

Taiwan’s policy-making Mainland Affairs Council has said China’s drills would not go down well with Taiwanese people and urged China to engage in rational communication to ensure peace across the Strait.

China’s hostility has risen since Tsai’s election, as it suspects she wants to push for formal independence, which would cross a red line for Communist Party leaders in Beijing.

It voiced opposition this week to the United States selling weapons to Taiwan, after the Trump administration approved a marketing licence required by American manufacturers to sell technology to Taiwan that would allow submarines to be built.

The licence was an important step and a spur for Taiwan’s plans to build its own naval vessels, Tsai said on Friday.

China’s state television broadcaster cited China’s Taiwan Affairs Office as saying that Beijing had firm will and the ability to “thwart any kind of Taiwan independence separatist plot and action, and safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

The nationalist state-run Global Times newspaper warned in a commentary on Taiwan’s drills that the island’s leaders were making a gamble they couldn’t afford to lose.

“The mainland has abundant capability to take back the Taiwan authorities’ bargaining chips one at a time until it deals a decisive blow to ‘Taiwan independence’,” the newspaper said.

China has claimed Taiwan since defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island in 1949 after losing the civil war with the Communists.

Reporting by Fabian Hamacher; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in BEIJING; Writing by Clare Jim; Editing Nick Macfie