China unveils ‘Sky Thunder’ weapons system amid growing tensions with Taiwan

A new Chinese weapons system has been unveiled on state media amid growing tensions with Taiwan and the US.

Chinese state TV ran reports over the weekend about the Tianlei 500, which translates as Sky Thunder, a 500kg precision-guided munitions dispenser and air-to surface missile. The Tianlei can carry six types of submunitions and attack different targets, a senior engineer said in the report.

The announcement comes amid heightened tensions with Taiwan and the US over Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and the coronavirus pandemic.

On Monday the Taiwanese government announced it was stepping up efforts to vet new arrivals from Hong Kong to prevent Chinese spies from settling on the island .

The island’s Mainland Affairs Council said it was “strengthening the management” of Hong Kong and Macau residents who are originally from mainland China, or who are current or previous party, government or military officials, and aimed to prevent them from “carrying out infiltration, united front, disturbance or spying activities”, the council said.

“United front” refers to the Chinese Communist party’s United Front Work Department, which is in charge of co-opting overseas Chinese and non-communists.

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly emphasised Taiwan’s claim to sovereignty since her re-election earlier this year, and in a speech last week welcomed US assistance and announced increased defence spending to improve their capabilities to fend off a land invasion, drawing rebuke from Beijing.

It followed the highest level US visit to Taiwan in four decades, with a delegation lead by cabinet secretary Alex Azar, infuriating Beijing which warned the US not to “play with fire”.

A recently formalised $62bn arms deal for Taiwan to buy fighter jets from US firm Lockheed Martin has also been portrayed as a provocation in Chinese state media.

China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control, and has denounced the United States for arms sales to the island. Washington is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.

Meanwhile all parties have begun live fire drills in the region. The US Navy conducted exercises in the South China Sea last week, which Navy commander Joshua Fagan said were “essential to ensuring joint force responsiveness and lethality, and maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific”.

On Sunday the People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong-based garrison also released footage of a live fire drill in the north and south of the Taiwan Strait. A PLA spokesperson said, without referring to the US by name, that “a certain major country” had been continuously making negative moves on the Taiwan question, which has sent the wrong signal to “Taiwan independence” forces.

Footage of US and Taiwan forces training together has also recently emerge, according to Taiwan media.

Natasha Kassam, research fellow with the Lowy Institute foreign policy thinktank, said Beijing’s posturing was an act of deterrence to avoid “high risk” military conflict. It signalled its opposition to the US’s growing relationship with Taiwan, and sent a message to a potential incoming US administration led by Joe Biden, who has historically been supportive of Taiwan.

“The increasingly assertive behaviour from China suggests that Beijing’s options to annex Taiwan are shrinking. In the past Beijing’s strategy has involved coercive measures, military threats and also economic inducements. It seems they’re starting to recognise Taiwan’s independent identity and resistance to unification has reached a tipping point,” Kassam said.

Recent comments in Chinese state media editorials and by senior officials have called for easing tensions with the US, but laid the blame for disputes with Washington.