By Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang
SUAO, Taiwan (Reuters) -Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen boarded a naval warship on Tuesday for only the second time in her six years in office, where she lauded the military's determination to defend the island while overseeing its largest annual naval and air exercises.
The military drills, which simulate the repulsion of an invading force, coincide with air-raid exercises across the island as it boosts combat preparedness in the face of rising military pressure from China.
Beijing's growing assertiveness towards the island it claims as its own, combined with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, have renewed debate about how to boost defence and prompted authorities to step up preparations in the event of a Chinese attack.
Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of its territory and has never renounced using force to bring the island under its control. Taiwan rejects Beijing's sovereignty claims and vows to defend its freedom and democracy.
As part of Taiwan's annual "Han Kuang" exercises, 20 warships including frigates and destroyers fired shells to intercept and attack a would-be invading force off Taiwan's northeast coast, while fleets of F-16 fighter jets and domestically manufactured Ching-kuo fighters launched air strikes.
Tsai, on board a decommissioned U.S. Kidd class missile destroyer in waters off the port town of Suao, was seen wearing camouflage clothing and greeting soldiers.
"The excellent drill just now demonstrated the ability and determination by the soldiers of the Republic of China to defend the country," Tsai told soldiers via a cabin broadcast, using Taiwan's official name.
"Let's continue to guard our homeland together. Good job," she said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, asked about the drills at a regular briefing in Beijing, repeated China's warnings about any military moves by Taiwan.
"Taiwan's attempt to confront China militarily is akin to a mantis trying to obstruct a chariot," he said. "In the end, it is doomed to fail."
SOURCE OF TENSION
The five-day drills come amid rising concerns about China's intentions towards Taiwan. China said on Monday it heightened warnings to the Biden administration about U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's possible visit to Taiwan. Such visits are a frequent source of tension between Beijing and Washington.
The United States does not have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan but is bound by U.S. law to provide the democratically governed island with the means to defend itself.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby told CNN in an interview there should be no unilateral change in the status quo over the island, and that the United States' one-China policy had not changed.
"None of this has to devolve into conflict. Nothing's changed with respect to 'one China' or supporting Taiwan's ability to defend itself. So there's no reason for this to be escalated, even in just rhetoric," Kirby said.
He added that as far as he was aware, Pelosi had not yet made a decision on the trip.
Although Taiwan's military is well-trained and well-equipped with mostly U.S.-made hardware, China has huge numerical superiority and is adding advanced equipment such as stealth fighters.
Speaking in a pre-recorded speech at a security forum in Taipei on Tuesday morning, Tsai said "authoritarian forces" were threatening to subvert the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region and Taiwan was standing on the geopolitical frontline to "fight against the authoritarian aggression".
Island-wide drills this year include repulsion of an invading force at a major harbour near the capital Taipei, urban combat practice by the reservist force, and an exercise to transfer jets across Taiwan to bunkers dug out of the side of mountains on the remote east coast to withstand a first wave of missile attacks.
Among the warships on display were the island's new minelayer as well as a stealth corvette, which has been dubbed by Taiwan's navy the "aircraft carrier killer" due to its complement of anti-ship missiles.
(Reporting by Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang; Additional reporting by Martin Quin Pollard in Beijing and Doina Chiacu and Michael Martina in Washington; Writing by Yimou Lee; Editing by Edmund Klamann and David Holmes)