China will surround Taiwan and effectively blockade the island with massive military drills in the most-serious threat to its independence in decades as Beijing escalates tensions over Nancy Pelosi’s visit.
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 its support for the self-governing island.
Four more days of drills will then commence on Thursday and last until Sunday, taking place in six locations around the country – three of which cross into its territorial waters in what Taipei has today 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
Chinese anti-aircraft forces in its Eastern Theatre – which covers the Taiwan Strait – take part in live-fire exercises overnight in an effort to intimidate Taipei and the US
Anti-aircraft fire streaks into the skies over Fujian, the Chinese province closest to Taiwan, overnight in a show-of-strength intended to intimidate America and the democratic government in Taipei
A Chinese anti-aircraft crew open fire with a mobile gun during live-fire drills that began on Tuesday and will last until Thursday, when even larger sea and air drills begin
A Chinese anti-aircraft battery lines up for live-fire drills taking place in Fujian province – the closest region to Taiwan – as Beijing rattles its sabres over Pelosi’s visit to the island
Chinese troops fire shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft launchers as part of military drills announced by Beijing yesterday
Beijing says the drills are being conducted in response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which is the first by a House Speaker since Newt Gingrich travelled there in 1997
Chinese troops carry ammunition containers to their positions for live-fire exercises taking place on the mainland, in areas close to the self-governing island of Taiwan
Chinese troops fire anti-aircraft missiles during drills aimed at intimidating Taiwan and its US allies during Pelosi’s visit to the island, which began yesterday
Chinese radar operators take part in live-fire drills by anti-aircraft forces in the eastern province of Fujian yesterday
‘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.
A Chinese warship takes part in military exercises around the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, the second in six days of drills that will effectively blockade the self-governing island in the most-serious threat to its independence in decades
Chinese jets from its Eastern Theatre, which borders Taiwan, are pictured taking off in early-morning drills on Wednesday as Beijing attempts to intimidate its democratic neighbour
Chinese sailors rush to battle stations on board a warship as drills take place in and around the Taiwan Strait as Beijing ramps up tensions over Nancy Pelosi’s visit
Dawn breaks over the Taiwan Strait as seen from the side of a Chinese military plane circling above the island as massive exercises take place in a fresh threat to the self-governing territory
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
Nancy Pelosi speaks alongside Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei last night, during which she said America’s commitment to preserving democracy on the island is ‘ironclad’
Pro-China demonstrators slam Pelosi during a march in Hong Kong, another autonomous territory where Beijing has begun exerting control thanks to a sweeping anti-democratic security law put in place in 2020
A police officer watches as pro-China demonstrators gather in Hong Kong to oppose Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan
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.
China and Taiwan: What is their history, and why are relations at crisis-point?
Ever since Communist China and Taiwan broke away from each other at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 the waterway separating them has been a tense geopolitical flashpoint.
Just 81 miles wide at its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is a major international shipping channel and all that lies between now democratic, self-ruled Taiwan and its giant authoritarian neighbour.
Beijing has responded furiously to this week’s visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, issuing increasingly bellicose threats and announcing a series of military drills in the waters surrounding the island.
Historians pinpoint three previous moments when tensions within the Taiwan Strait boiled over into an acute crisis.
First Taiwan Strait Crisis
At the end of the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong’s communist forces had successfully pushed out Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who relocated to Taiwan.
Two rivals stood on each side of the strait – the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan.
The First Taiwan Strait Crisis broke out in August 1954 when the Nationalists placed thousands of troops on Taiwan-ruled Kinmen and Matsu, two small islands just a few miles from the mainland.
Communist China responded with artillery bombardments of the islands and the successful capture of the Yijiangshan Islands, about 400 kilometres north of Taipei.
The crisis was eventually defused but nearly brought China and the United States to the brink of direct conflict.
Second Taiwan Strait Crisis
Fighting broke out again in 1958 as Mao’s forces conducted an intense bombardment of Kinmen and Matsu in a bid to once again dislodge Nationalist troops there.
Concerned that the loss of those islands might lead to the collapse of the Nationalists and Beijing’s eventual takeover of Taiwan, US President Dwight D Eisenhower ordered his military to escort and resupply their Taiwanese allies.
At one point, the US even briefly considered deploying nuclear weapons against China.
Unable to take the offshore islands or bombard the Nationalists into submission, Beijing announced a ceasefire.
Mao’s forces would still intermittently shell Kinmen up to 1979 but an otherwise tense stalemate set in.
Third Taiwan Strait Crisis
It would be another 37 years before the next crisis. In those intervening decades, both China and Taiwan changed considerably.
Following the death of Mao, China remained Communist Party-controlled but began a period of reform and opening up to the world.
Taiwan, meanwhile, began shaking off the authoritarian years of Chiang Kai-shek and evolving into a progressive democracy, with many embracing a distinctly Taiwanese – and not Chinese – identity.
Tensions exploded again in 1995 when China began test-firing missiles in the waters around Taiwan to protest a visit by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to his alma mater university in the United States.
Beijing particularly loathed Lee because he favoured Taiwan declaring itself an independent state.
Further missile tests were carried out a year later as Taiwan held its first direct presidential election.
The display backfired.
The US dispatched two aircraft carrier groups to push China into backing down and Lee won the election by a large margin.
A year later, Newt Gingrich became the first US House Speaker to visit Taiwan, a precedent Pelosi is now following 25 years later.
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