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Six days of military exercises kicked off Tuesday with live-fire drills in and around the Taiwan strait that will last through today, as authoritarian China attempts to intimidate its democratic neighbour and pressure the US into dropping support.
Four more days of drills will then commence on Thursday and last until Sunday, taking place in six locations around Taiwan – three of which cross into the island’s territorial waters in what Taipei called a serious breach of international norms.
Shipping and air traffic will also be closed in those areas in what amounts to a blockade, as experts say Beijing is rehearsing its ability to cut the island off from the outside world in the event of a war.
But Pelosi – who on Tuesday became the most-senior politician to visit Taiwan since 1997, when China was last engaged in sabre-rattling – refused to back down, defiantly telling Beijing that the US ‘will not abandon its commitment’ to Taipei.
China is holding six days of military drills around Taiwan that will cross into its territorial waters in what Taipei has called a serious breach of international norms
‘Today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy’ she said in a short speech during a meeting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen.
‘America’s determination to preserve democracy, here in Taiwan and around the world, remains ironclad.’
Taiwan views itself as an independent nation separate from mainland China, but Beijing views it as a breakaway province that it has vowed to ‘reunify’.
The island is home to the remnants of the Nationalist Party which fought against, and lost, a war to China’s Communist Party after the Second World War.
America officially recognised the Communists as legitimate rulers of China in 1979 when they established diplomatic relations with Beijing, which also involved acknowledging that there is only ‘one China’ and Taiwan is part of it.
However, Congress passed a bill shortly afterwards that compels the US to supply arms to Taiwan to allow it to defend itself in the event it is attacked.
An uneasy truce has held around the island ever since, but tensions have been ramping up since President Xi Jinping said in 2019 that he reserves the right to ‘reunify’ Taiwan by force, if it is deemed necessary.
Pelosi’s visit has prompted the Chinese to raise those tensions even further with military drills, going far beyond the last Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996.
On that occasion, China also held military drills around the strait – but much further from the island than its exercises planned for this week.
None of the drills in ’96 crossed Taiwan’s territorial waters, and none took place on the eastern side of the island.
This time, three of the planned zones intrude into Taiwan’s waters and three are positioned to the island’s east – effectively cutting it off from the Pacific.
Chilling footage shared on Chinese social network Weibo appears to show amphibious tanks on the coast of Fujian along the Taiwan Strait
Further footage shows military equipment on the move in the Chinese city of Xiamen
Taiwan officials said the live fire drills violate United Nations rules, invade Taiwan’s territorial space and are a direct challenge to free air and sea navigation.
China’s Eastern Theatre Command said a multi-force exercise involving the Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, Strategic Support Force and Joint Logistics Support Force, took place in the air and sea to the north, southwest and southeast of Taiwan on Wednesday.
Chinese military practiced operations including seal and control, assault at sea and strike on land.
Analysts spoken to by Reuters say it remains unclear if China will fire cruise or ballistic missiles directly over the island, or attempt a blockade for the first time.
Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator, said it appeared the People’s Liberation Army wanted to practise blockading the island if it had to in a later war.
‘The goal of these exercises, to put it bluntly, is to prepare for the military fight with Taiwan.’
Unusually, the drills were announced with a locator map circulated by the official Xinhua news agency – a factor that for some analysts and scholars shows the need to play to both domestic and foreign audiences.
‘We can see China’s ambition: to make the Taiwan Strait non-international waters, as well as making the entire area west of the first island chain in the western pacific its sphere of influence,’ said a Taiwanese official familiar with its security planning.
If China got what it wanted, the official said, the impact would ‘be fatal for the safety and stability of regional countries, as well as for the regional economy.’
Singapore-based security scholar Collin Koh said the Pelosi visit had trapped China between having to show a resolute and sweeping response while avoiding a full-blown conflict.
‘Even if they want to avoid that outcome, there are still significant possibilities for an accidental escalation,’ said Koh, of the of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
The drills were announced in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting the island, becoming the most-senior US politician to do so since 1997
Maps of the drills produced by China show they go far beyond the missile firings in the straits in 1996 when Beijing protested the island’s first direct presidential election in what became known as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.
Significantly, in the north, east and south, the proposed exercise areas bisect Taiwan’s claimed 12 nautical miles of territorial waters – something Taiwanese officials say challenges the international order and amount to a blockade of its sea and air space.
In 1996, the United States navy dispatched two aircraft carriers close to the straits to effectively end the crisis – a move many analysts consider more challenging now given China’s military growth, including a vastly more capable missile inventory.
A U.S. Navy official confirmed to Reuters on Tuesday that the 7th Fleet had deployed the USS Ronald Reagan carrier and four other warships, including a guided missile cruiser, in the Philippine Sea east of Taiwan as part of a ‘routine deployment’.
The Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii did not immediately respond to Reuters’ questions on the Chinese drills on Wednesday.
Koh said advanced U.S. and Taiwanese reconnaissance aircraft would see the drills as an opportunity to probe Chinese military systems and communications, potentially adding to risks if Chinese planes responded.