Taiwan Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng warned on Monday the island has to be on alert this year for a “sudden entry” by the Chinese military into areas close to its territory amid rising military tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
China has stepped up its military activities around Taiwan in recent years, including almost daily air force incursions into the island’s air defence identification zone.
However, Taiwan has not reported any incident of Chinese forces entering its contiguous zone, which is 24 nautical miles (44.4 km) from its coast. But it has shot down a civilian drone that entered its airspace near an islet off the Chinese coast last year.
Answering questions from lawmakers in parliament, Chiu said the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might find excuses to enter areas close to Taiwan’s territorial air and sea space as the island steps up its military exchanges with the United States, to Beijing’s ire.
He said the PLA might make a “sudden entry” into Taiwan’s contiguous zone and get close to its territorial space, which the island defines as 12 nautical miles from its coast.
“(I) specifically make these comments this year, meaning they are making such preparations,” Chiu said. “Looking forward, they would use force if they really have to.”
In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a daily briefing that Beijing “will take firm measures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Taiwan has vowed to exercise its right to self-defence and counter-attack if Chinese armed forces entered its territory.
China last year staged unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan in reaction to a visit to the island by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Chiu said China was looking to “make trouble under a certain pretext,” adding that might include visits to the island made by senior foreign government officials or Taiwan’s frequent military contacts with other countries.
Asked by a lawmaker if the United States was planning to store some of its military equipment in Taiwan, Chiu said such discussions were ongoing but declined to elaborate.
The United States is Taiwan’s most important international arms supplier and increasing U.S. support for the democratic island has added to tension in already strained U.S.-Sino relations.
Chiu said the PLA sends about 10 planes or ships to areas near Taiwan a day. Some cross the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which has traditionally served as an unofficial buffer, on an almost daily basis, he said.
Chiu said since China has abandoned a tacit agreement on military movements in the Strait, Taiwan has made preparations to “fire the first shot” if Chinese entities, including drones or balloons, enter its territorial space.
China claims self-governed Taiwan as its own and has not renounced the use of force to bring it under Chinese control, if needed. Taiwan strongly rejects China’s sovereignty claims and says only its people can decide their future.
Tensions and power dynamics in the region have also prompted a sharper focus from officials in Canada. Late last year, the federal government unveiled its new Indo-Pacific strategy, including $2.3 billion in funding in the region over the next five years.
The strategy aims to strengthen Canada’s security and intelligence networks, deploy additional military assets, invest in cybersecurity infrastructure and diversify trade opportunities in the region.
China will boost defence spending by 7.2% this year, slightly outpacing last year’s increase and faster than the government’s modest economic growth forecast, as Premier Li Keqiang called for the armed forces to boost combat preparedness.
The national budget released on Sunday showed 1.55 trillion yuan ($224 billion) allocated to military spending.
The defence budget will be closely watched by China’s neighbors and the United States, who are concerned by Beijing’s strategic intentions and development of its military.
In his work report to the annual session of parliament, Li said military operations, capacity building and combat preparedness should be “well-coordinated in fulfilling major tasks.”
“Our armed forces, with a focus on the goals for the centenary of the People’s Liberation Army in 2027, should work to carry out military operations, boost combat preparedness and enhance military capabilities,” he said in the state-of-the-nation address to the largely rubber-stamp legislature.
This year’s hike in defence spending marks the eighth consecutive single-digit increase. As in previous years, no breakdown of the spending was given, only the overall amount and the rate of increase.
The spending increase outpaces targeted economic growth of around 5%, which is slightly below last year’s target as the world’s second-largest economy faces domestic headwinds.
Li Mingjiang, associate professor at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said defence spending outpacing the economic growth forecast showed China anticipates facing greater pressures in its external security environment, especially from the United States and on the Taiwan issue.
“Chinese leaders are clearly intensifying efforts to prepare the country militarily to meet all potential security challenges, including unexpected situations,” he said.
China, with the world’s largest military in terms of personnel, is busy adding a slew of new hardware, including aircraft carriers and stealth fighters.
— Reporting by Yew Lun Tian, Roger Tung and Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Laurie Chen in Beijing, Eduardo Baptista, and Nobuhiro Kubo in Tokyo; Editing by Tom Hogue, Christian Schmollinger, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Bernadette Baum and William Mallard & Simon Cameron-Moore. With a file from Global News.