BEIJING: China’s largest-ever military exercises encircling Taiwan kicked off Thursday, in a show of force straddling vital international shipping lanes after a visit to the island by United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi left Taiwan Wednesday after a trip that defied a series of stark threats from Beijing, which views the self-ruled island as its territory.
Pelosi was the highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years, and said her trip made it “unequivocally clear” that the US would not abandon a democratic ally.
It sparked a furious reaction from Beijing, which vowed “punishment” and announced military drills in the seas around Taiwan — some of the world’s busiest waterways.
The exercises, which began around 12pm (11am Thailand time), involve “live-firing”, according to state media.
“Six major areas around the island have been selected for this actual combat exercise and during this period, relevant ships and aircraft should not enter the relevant waters and airspaces,” state broadcaster CCTV reported.
AFP journalists in the border island of Pingtan saw several small projectiles flying into the sky followed by plumes of white smoke and loud booming sounds.
AFP was not in a position to identify the projectiles, which were fired from the proximity of nearby military installations, nor their precise direction.
The exercises are taking place in multiple zones around Taiwan — at some points within just 20 kilometres (12 miles) of the shore — and will conclude at midday on Sunday.
Taiwan’s defence ministry said it was closely watching the drills.
“The Ministry of National Defence stresses that it will uphold the principle of preparing for war without seeking war, and with an attitude of not escalating conflict and causing disputes,” it said in a statement.
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 Straits,” the newspaper said, referring to China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army.
Drills taking place since last Tuesday have set the stage for the exercises, with Beijing’s Xinhua news agency reporting they had simulated a “joint blockade” of Taiwan.
Taipei has condemned the plans, warning they threaten the security of the East Asia region.
“Some of the areas of China’s drills breach into… (Taiwan’s) territorial waters,” defence ministry spokesman Sun Li-fang said at a press conference Wednesday.
“This is an irrational move to challenge the international order.”
The Group of Seven industrialised nations also condemned the planned drills, saying in a statement there was “no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait”.
‘Preparation for actual combat’
Wednesday saw Taiwan’s Maritime and Port Bureau issue warnings to ships in northern, eastern and southern areas ahead of the drills.
“Ships are urged to avoid areas of the military drills and use alternative routes,” the bureau said.
Beijing has defended the planned exercises — and the drills that took place around Taiwan since late Tuesday — as “necessary and just” and pinned the blame for the escalation squarely 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 told a regular briefing Wednesday.
“The joint provocation by the US and Taiwan came first, China’s just defence came after,” she added.
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.
Taiwan’s 23 million people have long lived with the possibility of an invasion, but that threat has intensified under President Xi Jinping, China’s most assertive ruler in a generation.
Just 130 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is a major international shipping channel and all that lies between now democratic Taiwan and its giant authoritarian neighbour.
But it now sits as 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 in office.
“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.
“I think they are quite careful in not wanting to escalate beyond control,” Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor with a focus on security issues at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.
“Clearly they recognise that there are some limits to what they are willing to do.”
“The last thing Xi wants is an accidental war ignited,” said Titus Chen, an associate professor of political science at the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan.