China’s military said on Wednesday it had completed its exercises in Taiwan but would conduct regular patrols and drills in the area, an apparent confirmation of fears in Taipei and Washington that Beijing was seeking to normalize a closer military presence.
The People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command said in a statement that it had “completed the various tasks” in a series of joint military operations around Taiwan. But it added that it would “closely monitor changes in the situation” and would continuously train, prepare and organize regular patrols “in the direction of the Taiwan Strait”.
The statement came after Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly opposition party sent its deputy leader to China on a trip that Taipei warns risks sowing internal division over the unprecedented military pressure campaign.
Andrew Hsia, a veteran diplomat who served as the country’s top China policy official under the last Kuomintang (KMT) government, justified the visit as an attempt to support Taiwanese citizens living in China.
“We have not made any plans to meet with Chinese officials, although it is of course possible that they will be contacted or that we may meet with them in the context of our meetings with Taiwanese companies,” he told the Financial Times before leaving on Wednesday morning for Xiamen in China’s southeast Fujian province.
Although the KMT said the visit had been planned for weeks and was unrelated to the Taiwan Strait crisis, it is likely to be highly controversial in Taiwan.
China’s cabinet-level political body in Taiwan said it had strongly advised against Hsia’s visit. “This move will cause domestic controversy and anxiety, great public misgivings and affect our internal unity. It will also confuse and mislead the international community’s perception of the threat facing Taiwan,” he said.
“China may ease the military moves a little now that it has made the KMT visit, but they will keep up the pressure,” said Chiu Chui-cheng, vice president of the corps.
Taiwan’s defense ministry said on Wednesday that 17 fighter jets flew across the middle line of the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial buffer. Beijing has said its exercises managed to “blur” the line and justified the military movements around Taiwan as normal movements in “waters around our own territory”.
The KMT has struggled for years to shake off accusations from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and suspicions among voters about its commitment to the Chinese Communist Party. According to a recent opinion poll, his support among voters had sunk to an all-time low of 17%.
The opposition party has joined the government in condemning China’s military exercises, but Hsia dodged questions about whether he would protest the exercises during his trip. “Our position has been consistent, and I will reiterate that when asked,” he said.
Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, said: “The mainland military exercise is not over yet. It is a very important gesture for the vice president of the Kuomintang to come to the mainland. The two sides must strengthen communication , especially in the current situation”.
Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to take it by force if the island resists unification indefinitely. The Chinese Communist Party has tried to use the KMT to undermine the authority of the Taiwan government.
Before Hsia’s arrival, Beijing released a white paper on its Taiwan policy that reiterated its position that “there is no room for doubt or change that Taiwan is part of China.”
A Chinese government spokesman said the white paper would help “strengthen the confidence and courage of forces inside and outside the island that oppose ‘independence’ and promote unification.”
In 2005, when cross-strait relations were at an all-time low following the re-election of Taiwan’s pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian, then-KMT chairman Lien Chan met with Communist Party general secretary, Hu Jintao, the first meeting between the leaders of the KMT and the CCP. since 1945.
The two sides subsequently established regular dialogue, which was fiercely criticized by the DPP as an attempt to undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty. The last time a KMT vice president visited the mainland was in 2019.
The KMT accepts the premise that Taiwan is part of one China, but adds that the parties reserve their respective interpretations of that China.
Hsia rejected criticism that his delegation could become a tool of Chinese divisional tactics. “It’s not that we haven’t been a target of the United Front’s tactics before and we don’t know how to protect ourselves,” he said, referring to a political strategy body of the Chinese Communist Party.
“But in the end, communicating is always better than not communicating. We want to do something for our citizens based in China at a time when the government cannot,” he added.
Hsia said his delegation will try to address the problems faced by Taiwanese in China due to the mainland’s coronavirus pandemic restrictions and cross-strait trade.
Additional reporting by Nic Fildes in Sydney