China has launched massive military exercises in close proximity to Taiwan in a furious response to senior US politician Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island.
The Chinese military started its live fire drills at midday today, local time, declaring half a dozen exclusion zones around Taiwan. Three of those zones are within 20km of the island, meaning they breach Taiwan’s territorial waters.
Long-range artillery shooting drills were conducted in the Taiwan Strait. China said the “expected results” had been achieved.
“The People’s Liberation Army is conducting an important military training exercise and organised live fire,” state broadcaster CCTV announced.
“During these combat exercises, six major areas around the island were selected, and during this period all ships and aircraft should not enter the relevant sea areas and airspace.”
Taiwan’s defence ministry said China had launched “several” ballistic missiles into the waters off its northeast and southwest coasts.
The military drills will last until at least Sunday.
They came after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the visit of Ms Pelosi, the third-highest ranking politician in the United States, as a “complete farce”.
“The irreversible historical trend of Taiwan’s return to the motherland cannot be changed. Those who offend China will surely be punished,” he said.
During her trip, Ms Pelosi reaffirmed America’s commitment to maintaining its solidarity with Taiwan, and to “not abandon” the independent island, which China has long claimed is part of its own territory.
China’s nationalist state-run tabloid The Global Times, citing military analysts, said the military exercises were “unprecedented” and would involve missiles flying over Taiwan for the first time.
“This is the first time the PLA will launch live long-range artillery across” the Taiwan Strait, the newspaper said, using the Chinese military’s formal name, the People’s Liberation Army.
Taiwan has described the exercises as “an irrational move to challenge the international order”.
The Group of Seven industrialised nations also condemned the drills, saying in a statement that there was “no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait”.
Taiwan’s Maritime and Port Bureau issued warnings on Wednesday to ships to avoid the areas being used for the Chinese drills.
The Taiwanese cabinet said the drills would disrupt 18 international routes passing through its flight information region (FIR).
Beijing has defended its military operations as “necessary and just”, pinning the blame for the escalation on the United States and its allies.
“In the current struggle surrounding Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, the United States are the provocateurs, China is the victim,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing on Wednesday.
A Chinese military source also told AFP the exercises would be staged “in preparation for actual combat”.
“If the Taiwanese forces come into contact with the PLA on purpose and accidentally fire a gun, the PLA will take stern countermeasures, and all the consequences will be borne by the Taiwanese side,” the source said.
China ‘driven away’ after breaching median line
Shortly before the drills, approximately ten Chinese navy ships reportedly crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait.
A Taiwanese source briefed on the matter told Reuters the Chinese ships briefly crossed the line, which informally divides Taiwan from the mainland, before being “driven away” by ships from Taiwan’s navy.
“They sneaked in, and were driven away by us,” the source said.
Before that, multiple Chinese planes also crossed the median line, forcing Taiwan to scramble fighter jets to track their movement.
“They flew in and then flew out, again and again. They continue to harass us and increase our air defence pressure,” said the source.
Officially, Taiwan responded to the day’s events by stressing it sought “no escalation”.
“But we don’t stand down when it comes to security and sovereignty,” Taiwan’s defence ministry said.
It added that it would “uphold the principle of preparing for war without seeking war”.
On social media, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said she was “committed to defending the status quo and our hard-earned democracy”.
Speaking to the BBC, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Director Bonnie Lin warned Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s territory could lead to a dangerous accident.
“If China decides to fly aeroplanes over Taiwan’s airspace, there is a chance Taiwan might try to intercept them. What happens in the air could be a mid-air collision, (or) a lot of different scenarios playing out,” she said.
“I suspect that whatever China is doing in these drills the next couple of days, that it won’t be the first and only time China does them. China is trying to normalise a pattern of aggressive behaviour against Taiwan.”
China’s provocative activities actually started on Wednesday.
Major General Chang Zone-sung of Taiwan’s Kinmen Island Defense Command confirmed Chinese-operated drones had flown over the Kinmen area twice during the evening hours, at about 9pm local time.
“We immediately fired flares to issue warnings and to drive them away. After that, they turned around. They came into our restricted area and that‘s why we dispersed them,” he said.
While analysts continue to say Chinese President Xi Jinping does not want war to break out, the latest escalations have made the future more uncertain.
‘Adding fuel to the fire’
Ms Pelosi left Taiwan on Wednesday, having defied a series of stark threats from Beijing in deciding to land there.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd criticised the US House Speaker for, in his view, adding “fuel to the fire”, saying her visit would hurt Taiwan’s national security.
Second in line to the US presidency behind Vice President Kamala Harris, Ms Pelosi was the highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.
She said her presence made it “unequivocally clear” that the United States would “not abandon” a democratic ally like Taiwan.
Taiwan’s 23 million people have long lived with the possibility of an invasion, but that threat has intensified under Xi, China’s most assertive ruler in a generation.
Just 130 km wide at its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is a major international shipping channel and all that lies between democratic Taiwan and its giant authoritarian neighbour.
It is now a flashpoint between the United States, Taiwan and a Chinese leadership keen to project strength ahead of a crucial ruling party meeting this autumn at which Xi is expected to be given an unprecedented third term.
“China’s announced military exercises represent a clear escalation from the existing baseline of Chinese military activities around Taiwan and from the last Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group.
“Beijing is signalling that it rejects Taiwan’s sovereignty.” Nevertheless, analysts have told AFP that China is not aiming to escalate the situation beyond its control — at least for now.
“Clearly they recognise that there are some limits to what they are willing to do,” Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.