China will begin its largest-ever military exercises around Taiwan on Thursday, in a show of force that spans vital international shipping routes after a visit to the self-ruled island by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi left Taiwan on Wednesday after a visit of less than 24 hours that defied a series of increasingly strong threats from Beijing, which considers the island its territory.
The Speaker of the House, second in line after the presidency, was the most prominent elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.
She said her presence made it “unequivocal” that the United States would “not abandon” a Democratic ally like Taiwan.
Her trip sparked an outraged response from Beijing, who swore “punishment” for those who offended it and announced military exercises in the seas around Taiwan – some of the world’s busiest waterways.
The drills, which will begin at noon (0400 GMT), will “include training activities, including live fire drills,” according to a state media announcement.
They will take place in multiple zones around Taiwan – at some points within just 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the island’s coast – and will finish at noon on Sunday.
Nationalist, state-run tabloid The Global Times reported, citing military analysts, that the exercises were “unprecedented” and that missiles would fly 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, referring to the Chinese military’s People’s Liberation Army.
The exercises that have been taking place since last Tuesday have paved the way for the exercises, with China’s Xinhua news agency reporting that they simulated a “joint blockade” of Taiwan.
Taipei has condemned the plans and warned that they threaten the security of the East Asian region.
“Some areas of China’s exercises are breaking into (Taiwan’s) territorial waters,” Defense Ministry spokesman Sun Li-fang said at a news conference on Wednesday.
“This is an irrational move to challenge the international order.”
The Group of Seven Industrialized Countries also condemned the planned exercises, saying in a statement that there was “no justification for using a visit as a pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait”.
‘Preparing for actual battle’
On Wednesday, the Taiwan Maritime and Port Bureau issued warnings to ships in the northern, eastern and southern areas ahead of the exercises.
“Ships are urged to avoid areas of military exercises and use alternative routes,” the agency said.
Beijing has defended the planned exercises – and those that have been taking place around Taiwan since late Tuesday – as “necessary and just” and blamed the escalation on the United States and its allies.
“In the current battle over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the United States is the provocateurs, China the victim,” State Department spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing on Wednesday.
“The joint provocation by the US and Taiwan came first, China’s righteous defense came next,” she added.
A Chinese military source also told AFP that the exercises would be organized “in preparation for the actual battle”.
“If Taiwanese forces deliberately come into contact with the PLA and accidentally fire a gun, the PLA will take stern countermeasures, and all consequences will be borne by the Taiwanese side,” the source said.
Taiwan’s 23 million people have long lived with the possibility of invasion, but that threat has increased under President Xi Jinping, China’s most assertive ruler in a generation.
The Taiwan Strait, only 130 kilometers (81 miles) wide at its narrowest point, is a major international shipping channel and all that lies between now democratic Taiwan and its gargantuan authoritarian neighbor.
But it now stands as a flashpoint between the United States, Taiwan and a Chinese leadership eager to project strength ahead of a pivotal ruling party meeting this fall, when Xi is expected to receive an unprecedented third term in office.
“China’s announced military exercises represent a clear escalation of the existing base of Chinese military activity around Taiwan and of the latest crisis in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-1996,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group. .
Beijing says it rejects Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Nevertheless, analysts have told AFP that China has no intention of letting the situation escalate beyond its control – at least for now.
“I think they are very careful not to want to escalate out of control,” Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor with a focus on security issues at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.
“They clearly recognize that there are limits to what they want to do.”
“The last thing Xi wants is for a war to break out accidentally,” said Titus Chen, an associate professor of political science at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan.