China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), concerned over a growing U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, is planning a military drill off Hainan Island in August. The drill, described as a large-scale landing drill, is a practice run for a possible attempt by the PLA to capture Pratas Island, a Taiwanese-held island located about halfway between Hainan and Taiwan.

Pratas is called Dongsha Island by the Chinese and is home to a small airfield used mainly by the Taiwanese military. Its position is about 200 miles (320 km) off China’s mainland and Hong Kong, making it a desired military location.

Sovereignty struggles have been taking place in the South China Sea for years with China’s claims over the entirety of the sea overlapping with the claims of other Asian countries. The Communist giant has been building a military presence in the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands but has put the Pratas islands on the proverbial back burner.

That may be changing after the re-election of Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, who won a second term in January with a landslide victory. Her predecessor, former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, had cultivated close ties with Beijing and some speculate that leaving the Pratas alone was a consideration to him.

Tsai is scheduled to be sworn in for her second and final term Wednesday. She is seen as a pro-democracy force and although she has officially denied it to Beijing, she is probably against China’s efforts to re-unite Taiwan under the Chinese Communist party, using force if necessary.

U.S and Taiwan relations are also strong and have been strengthened during President Donald Trump’s administration. China views the U.S. military presence as “joint military conduct with Taiwan.”   The U.S. Navy said Thursday (May 14) it had sailed a guided-missile destroyer through the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

Beijing's efforts to isolate Taiwan have ramped up since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen (C) in 2016 Beijing's efforts to isolate Taiwan have ramped up since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen (C) in 2016 Photo: AFP / Sam Yeh

For China and the PLA, the Pratas are a strategic point to advance into the Pacific Ocean. In December, China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, was deployed to the Hainan base, making the Pratas a more attractive target to gain control of and to counter the U.S. presence.

Taiwanese media quoted Major General Lin Wen-huang, who heads an operations and planning office at the Taiwan Defense Ministry, as saying that the ministry is monitoring movements of “hostile forces,” adding that it has contingency plans in place for the South China Sea. He also said work to strengthen combat readiness and defense preparedness in the area will not stop.Taiwan describes the Chinese drills as attempts at intimidation and has told Beijing it should focus its efforts on fighting the coronavirus rather than menacing the island.  

According to sources familiar with China’s Southern Theater Command, the drill will mobilize an unprecedented level of forces, including marines, landing ships, hovercrafts, and helicopters.