China sends 37 warplanes to Taiwan ahead of major military drills

China has sent nearly 40 warplanes toward Taiwan just days before the island plans to hold military exercises to practise defending itself from a potential invasion.

Taiwan is set to conduct annual military exercises next week, including combat readiness drills, and to prepare its civilians for evacuations in the case of a possible air raid.

The evacuation exercise has drawn attention because it represents a significant departure from previous years – while normally people are just asked to go indoors for 30 minutes while the air raid sirens sound, this week police will escort anyone out on the street at the time of the drill to their nearest bomb shelter.

The drills are also covering a much greater sample of the population than previously, covering districts that account for a combined three million of Taiwan’s 23 million people, according to the Financial Times.

The expanded drills are widely seen as a response to increasingly aggressive rhetoric from China, which claims Taiwan as a breakaway province and has repeatedly said it is willing to use force to bring the island back under Beijing’s control.

Days before the planned exercises the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent 37 aircraft and seven navy vessels toward the island between 6am on Friday and 6am on Saturday, according to Taiwan’s defence ministry.

Among the aircraft sent toward the island were J-10 and J-16 fighters and H-6 bombers, a statement said.

The Taiwan defence ministry said 22 of the detected warplanes crossed the midline of the Taiwan Strait – considered the unofficial boundary between the island and the mainland – or entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.

China and Taiwan split in 1949 following a civil war that led to the ruling Communist Party taking control of the mainland and Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China relocating its government to the island.

While the two governments have permitted economic ties to develop over the years, the prospect of any kind of political reconciliation appears to be at an all-time low as Taiwan asserts its own identity, while China wants the island to accept its terms for unification.

China has conducted increasingly elaborate military drills around the island including practising blockading access by sea, and sent large numbers of military planes across the Strait to test the Taiwanese air force’s responses.

Beijing has also repeatedly expressed its displeasure towards officials from other countries who have visited Taiwan for talks, including from Western countries.

Washington maintains robust unofficial ties with Taiwan, and has pledged to help the island defend itself in case of an invasion while not officially recognising it as a separate country.

China’s show of displeasure towards Taiwanese political activities has particularly seen a rise since former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August.

After Ms Pelosi’s visit to the island, the PLA fired missiles over Taiwan in a significant escalation.

The increased escalation has disrupted trade lanes in the Taiwan Strait and has also forced airplanes to reroute flights.

After Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen met with current US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the PLA held large-scale combat readiness drills in the air and sea around the island.

Pressure from China on the international stage means that only 13 countries have formal ties with Taipei. Honduras, which had been the 14th, severed relations with Taiwan after suggesting it could receive up to $10bn in investment from China in Honduran infrastructure projects.

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