China launches 'punishment' drills around Taiwan. Here's why Beijing says it's doing it

China launched what it called "punishment" military drills around Taiwan on Thursday in response to "separatist acts" following the inauguration of the self-ruled island's new leader, President Lai Ching-te.

The drills come three days after Lai, who Beijing has described as a "dangerous troublemaker," was sworn in.

The Chinese People's Liberation Army said the drills were being conducted in the Taiwan Strait, the north, south and east of Taiwan, as well as areas around the Taiwan-controlled islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu and Dongyin, state media reported, citing a statement from the army. The drills were code-named "Joint Sword − 2024A."

Here's a refresher on China's Taiwan animosity, why Beijing is conducting the drills, and how concerning it is.

What's China's beef with Taiwan?

China has long vowed through successive administrations to unite Taiwan, an independently governed island since 1949 that Beijing views as its territory, with the Chinese mainland less than 150 miles away at its widest point. China views Taiwan as a breakaway province. China's President Xi Jinping has not strayed from this policy.

In recent years, Chinese fighter jets and warships have patrolled near Taiwan and held mock military strikes in an apparent reminder from Xi that Beijing is prepared to use its rapidly modernizing military, if necessary, to eventually make this happen. In fact, China's military has, over the past several years, carried out almost daily military-related activities near Taiwan. China last staged large-scale war games near Taiwan in 2023 and 2022.

What was in Lai Ching-te's speech that angered Beijing so?

In his speech Monday, Lai said called on China "to cease (its) political and military intimidation against Taiwan" and to focus instead on promoting peace in the region, according to a transcript. He urged Beijing to "choose dialog over confrontation, exchange over containment, and under the principles of parity and dignity."

Chinese officials reacted angrily. Chen Binhua, a spokesperson for the government, said Lai's address demonstrated he was "a traitor to mainstream public opinion on the island and a disruptor of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait." China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Lai's words were a "complete disgrace." Their comments were published on the website of Chinese Central Television, an English-language state broadcaster.

How worried should Taiwan be about China's drills?

Taiwanese officials have condemned China's drills and called them "irrational provocations." Liang Wen-Chieh, a spokesman for a ministry that oversees China-related issues, said in a press conference Thursday that "Beijing should understand that its intimidating tactics will not win hearts and minds. It will only enhance tensions."

Political scientists and military analysts are divided over whether Beijing is prepared to unite Taiwan with mainland China through force, and how easy or difficult that would be. In a straight matchup, China's military is far more powerful. China has more than 2 million active military personnel compared to Taiwan's 169,000, according to International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank. Beijing vastly outspends Taipei on defense. The U.S. provides Taiwan with weapons and has pledged to defend it military in the event of an assault from China.

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Dmitri Alperovitch, a U.S. national security expert and the author of a new book on the U.S.-China dynamic, "World on the Brink," argues in that work and elsewhere that Beijing is in the process of preparing for a war to take Taiwan and that China's leader Xi wants it to happen on his watch.

"(Russian President Vladimir) Putin wanted to invade Ukraine. He's in his 70s. Xi Jinping is in his 70s. Both men are driven by their egos," Alperovitch said in a recent interview, promoting his book. "They don't only want to take these countries, Ukraine in the case of Putin, Taiwan in the case of China, but they want to be the ones to do it, because they want to go down into the pantheon of history and be presented as a great leaders of their country."

Still, in Taiwan, where the population is accustomed to China's military activity and drills, there was no sign of alarm Thursday. Taiwan's benchmark stock index, enjoying historic highs, closed up 0.3%. A BBC report noted that the top Google trend in Taiwan for the day involved a Japanese actor rumored to be having an affair.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: China launches 'punishment' military drills around Taiwan