A screen grab captured from a video shows the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command launching a joint military drill around Taiwan, for the first time since William Lai Ching-te was inaugurated as the island nation’s president at Taiwan Strait on May 23, 2024. (Photo by Chinese People’s Liberation Army / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

SYDNEY — As China said it was practicing a blockade of Taiwan as “a strong punishment for the separatist acts of ‘Taiwan independence’ forces,” the deputy leader of US Indo-Pacific Command called out the People’s Republic in a speech here as “an equal opportunity bully” in the region.

The Chinese naval and air maneuvers “surrounding the island of Taiwan” were launched early in the morning four days after the island state’s new president took office, Chinese media reported.

In addition to the extensive military exercises, China’s official English-language Global Times newspaper reported China’s coast guard “launched a comprehensive law enforcement exercise in waters around Wuqiu and Dongyin islands in a move to test its joint patrol, rapid reaction and emergency response capabilities.” The outlet, citing a coast guard spokesperson, said it was “the first time the mainland’s coast guard vessels have entered waters around Wuqiu and Dongyin islands.”

In response, Taiwan has deployed jets, anti-aircraft units mobilized and the army and navy were put on alert, according to the Taiwanese Minstry of Defense.

In the face of PLA pressure, our service members stand vigilant. #ROCArmedForces are prepared. We seek no conflicts, but we will not shy away from one to ensure our nation’s safety and protect our beautiful homeland. pic.twitter.com/Qye4qLXDpz

— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) May 23, 2024

Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te apparently angered Chinese leader Xi Jinping in his inauguration speech Monday when he called on “China to cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan,” pledging his country would “neither yield nor provoke, and maintain the status quo.”

China’s moves came as US Indo-Pacific Command Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Sklenka declared China a “bully” in his theater during a nationally broadcast speech at the National Press Club in Canberra.

“Just since 2021 we’ve seen roughly 300 risky and coercive PLA intercepts of US and allied partner forces throughout this region,” he said. “These encounters not only contravene rules and norms governing behavior among militaries, but they also frankly endanger lives, and they create conditions for escalation.”

And while he took a hard line against China, he also sought to reassure his Australian audience should conflict break out. Although there are plan for more than 400 Aussie sailors to serve aboard US attack subs, Australia would not be drawn into war with China in the event of a Taiwan invasion.

“I think the Australian government, the policymakers in your government will determine whether or not those Australians will participate or not,” the general said in response to a reporter’s question.

The answer may not mollify critics, however. An Australian senator from the left-of-center Greens Party said the AUKUS  security partnership and the stationing of Australian sailors aboard US nuclear-powered attack subs “is a core threat to Australia’s sovereignty, hundreds of Australian sailors and officers can be committed to the next US war without any credible way for our own government to stop it.”

Having over 400 Australian personnel on US nuclear submarines handcuffs us to US foreign policy.

If the US subs are involved in a conflict it is not like the Australian troops can just hop off until the Government here makes a decision.

AUKUS undermines our sovereignty. pic.twitter.com/fM8jfNrPmv

— David Shoebridge (@DavidShoebridge) May 23, 2024