As China’s fury with Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan continues unabated one move by the People’s Liberation Army has ramped up concerns on the under pressure island of 24 million people.
As part of the “unprecedented” military drills in the seas around Taiwan, it’s widely believed that Beijing has fired several missiles directly over the democratic nation.
While it regularly threatens Taiwan, sending a missile through Taiwanese airspace, above the heads of its residents, is a line it has never crossed before.
A China watcher has said that while tensions in the Taiwan Strait may lessen once Beijing has vented, another scenario is “mutual escalation” and the possibility “things may enter a very dangerous spiral”.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s foreign minister has warned China has “expansionist dreams” beyond merely his island.
Ms Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, stayed for fewer than 24 hours in Taiwan. Despite the short stay, the visit has sparked one of the worst diplomatic crises between China and the US for years.
Taiwan has been self-governing for more than 70 years and has never been under the rule of Communist China. But Beijing considers the island as its territory – to be taken, by force, if necessary.
The Chinese government views any official visits to Taiwan by senior politicians from other countries as a provocation.
Beijing was adamant that Ms Pelosi should not touch down in Taiwan’s capital of Taipei. When she did it announced four days of military “live fire” exercises.
The Taiwan Strait which separates the island from the Chinese mainland is no stranger to military drills both on sea and in the air.
But the current exercises have gone much further than any previously. Chinese ships and aircraft have been crossing the so-called “median line” that divides the strait between the two nations. It’s a line that had been largely respected by Beijing.
A map released by China of the zones where its drills were taking place and where missiles could land showed some were within 12 nautical miles of Taiwan’s coast. That would bring the drills into what would commonly be thought of as Taiwan’s domestic waters.
Images from maritime traffic tracking websites has shown commercial ships conspicuously absent from these zones to avoid getting caught in the melee. Some airlines have cancelled flights to Taipei.
China crosses the line with missile over Taiwan
However, it’s the reported firing of missiles over Taiwan that has rattled Taipei.
Japan’s defence ministry said five Chinese missiles landed in waters within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near some of its outlying islands. That in itself is a first.
But Japan added that four of those were “believed to have flown over Taiwan’s main island”. It released a map (below) which depicted the paths of missiles launched from China’s Fujian province. The rockets landed south of its Hateruma island, passing directly above or close to Taiwan’s capital en route.
While neither Beijing nor Taipei has officially confirmed the missile overflies, it’s being openly discussed in China.
“Our exercises this time included live-firing tests, and it was the first time they crossed Taiwan Island,” Meng Xiangqing, a pro-regime professor at China’s National Defence University, told state broadcaster CCTV.
Blinken: China’s ‘significant escalation’
Talking at a summit in Cambodia, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the firings over Taiwan and into Japan’s EEZ were a “significant escalation”.
“China should not use (Ms Pelosi’s) visit as a pretext for war, escalation, for provocative actions.
“There is no possible justification for what they’ve done and we urge them to cease these actions”.
Optimistic – and pessimistic – scenarios
Writing on academic website The Conversation Professor Todd Hall, director of the China Centre at the UK’s University of Oxford, said the current Chinese drills were “unprecedented” and were in much closer proximity to Taiwan compared to a similar flare up in tensions in the mid-1990s.
At that time, for instance, military drills were largely confined to the Taiwan Straits and did not expand to surround Taiwan as now.
Prof Hall said the ramping up of the military exercises was linked to the upcoming Communist Party Congress in China where President Xi Jinping will be seeking to consolidate his power. One way to do that is to take a hard line on Taiwan.
“Given Beijing’s diplomatic playbook, this will likely mean a forceful performance of outrage to make the US, Taiwan and other potential audiences realise the sensitivity of the issue.
“The optimistic scenario is that once Beijing feels that it has sufficiently conveyed its message things will subside.
“The pessimistic scenario is that Beijing will take actions that Washington views as too incendiary to leave uncontested, sparking mutual escalation.
“If each side sees itself as having to react to the other’s perceived provocations, things may enter a very dangerous spiral.”
Warning China won’t stop at Taiwan
The war of words at least continues unabated, with Taiwan’s prime minister Su Tseng-chang calling Beijing an “evil neighbour”.
“(We) didn’t expect that the evil neighbour next door would show off its power at our door and arbitrarily jeopardise the busiest waterways in the world with its military exercises”.
While Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu told the BBC Beijing’s territorial ambitions did not stop at Taiwan.
“Look at their behaviour over Hong Kong, or claiming the East China Sea and the South China Sea. It is the typical expansionism of an authoritarian state.
“Taiwan is not going to be the last piece in Chinese dream of expansionism.”
For its part, Beijing has said it is the US that escalated tension with Ms Pelosi’s visit.
“It is the US side that is the troublemaker,” Jing Quan a Chinese Embassy official in Washington told reporters.
“The only way out of this crisis is that the US side must take measures immediately to rectify its mistakes and eliminate the grave impact of Pelosi’s visit.”
Pelosi defends Taiwan visit
But Ms Pelosi is adamant her touchdown in Taiwan was warranted in the face of Beijing’s increasing shrill demands the island submit itself to Communist rule.
“This is about Taiwan, and I am proud to have worked over the years to showcase the concerns that they have with mainland China,” she said in Tokyo.
“We will not allow China to isolate Taiwan. They are not doing our travel schedule.”
Officials in Taipei, Tokyo and Washington will be nervously scouring the skies over Taiwan, hoping Chinese missiles are a one off, not a regular occurrence.