PINGTAN, China – China’s largest-ever military exercise encircling Taiwan began in a show of force in crucial international shipping lanes following a visit to the island by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday.
Pelosi left Taiwan on Wednesday after a visit that dismissed several serious threats from Beijing, which views the self-governing island as its own territory.
Second in the presidential order, Pelosi was the highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.
She said her presence made it “extremely clear” that the United States would “not abandon” a democratic ally such as Taiwan.
It sparked a furious backlash from Beijing, which vowed “punishment” and announced military exercises in the seas around Taiwan – some of the world’s busiest waterways.
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According to state media, the exercise, which began around 12 noon (0400 GMT), involved “live-firing”.
State broadcaster CCTV reported, “Six key areas around the island have been selected for this genuine combat exercise and during this period, relevant ships and aircraft should not enter the respective waters and airspace.”
Traces of smoke from projectiles launched by the Chinese military are seen as tourists look at Pington Island, one of the closest points from Taiwan to mainland China, in Fujian province on August 4, 2022. (Hector Ratmal/AFP)
Beijing later said it carried out “precision missile strikes” in the Taiwan Strait.
The Eastern Theater Command of the ruling Communist Party’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, said in a statement on its social, “long-range armed live-fire precision missile strikes were carried out on selected targets in the eastern region of the Taiwan Strait.” media forum.
“The expected result was achieved,” it added. No other details given.
Tourists watch as a Chinese military helicopter takes off over Pington Island, one of the closest points to mainland China, from Taiwan in Fujian province on August 4, 2022. (Hector Ratmal/AFP)
The exercise will take place in several areas around Taiwan – at some points within just 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the island’s coast – and will conclude at noon on Sunday.
Taiwan’s defense ministry said it was closely monitoring the exercise and that the island was prepared for conflict, but would not seek it.
“The Ministry of National Defense emphasizes that it will adhere to the principle of preparedness for war without calling for war and the attitude of not escalating conflict and creating controversy,” the statement said.
Beijing’s nationalist state-run tabloid Global Times cited military analysts as saying the exercises were “unprecedented” and that the missiles would fly over Taiwan for the first time.
In this photo released by the Taiwan President’s Office, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen arrive for a meeting in Taipei, Taiwa, August 3, 2022. (Taiwan President’s Office via AP)
The newspaper, using the Chinese military’s formal name, the People’s Liberation Army, said “this is the first time the PLA will launch long-range artillery live”.
Taiwan has described the exercise as “an irrational move to challenge the international order”.
The Group of Seven Industrialized Countries also condemned the exercise, saying in a statement that “there was no justification for using the visit as a pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Straits.”
‘Preparing for the real match’
Taiwan’s Maritime and Port Bureau on Wednesday issued a warning to ships to avoid areas being used for Chinese exercises.
Taiwan’s cabinet said the exercise would disrupt 18 international routes passing through its Flight Information Area (FIR).
Beijing has defended its military operations as “necessary and justified”, blaming the United States and its allies for it.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen poses for a photograph with Taiwanese naval personnel during an inspection of Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang exercise in Taiwan on July 26, 2022. (Shiro Lee/Taiwan President’s Office via AP)
“In the current conflict of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the United States is the provocateur, China is the victim,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing on Wednesday.
A Chinese military source also told AFP that the exercise would be conducted “in preparation for the actual war”.
“If the Taiwanese military deliberately comes into contact with the PLA and accidentally fires a gun, the PLA will take strong retaliatory measures and the Taiwanese side will bear all the consequences,” the source said.
Example: A Cheung Kung-class warship fires an anti-air missile as part of a naval demonstration at Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang exercise off the island’s east coast near the city of Yilan, Taiwan, on July 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Huizhong Wu)
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said on Thursday that its website was back online after several cyber attacks, Reuters reported.
The incident follows cyberattacks earlier this week targeting official government sites in Taiwan, for which some officials blamed China and Russia.
It was not immediately clear whether Thursday’s incident was related to Pelosi’s visit or whether it was actually carried out by China.
Taiwan’s 23 million people have long lived with the prospect of invasion, but the threat has intensified under President Xi Jinping, China’s most outspoken ruler in a generation.
Just 130 km wide at its narrowest point, the Strait of Taiwan is a major international shipping channel and lies all between democratic Taiwan and its vast authoritarian neighbour.
It is now eager to show strength ahead of a crucial ruling party meeting between the United States, Taiwan and a Chinese leadership at which Xi is expected to be given an unprecedented third term.
Pro-China supporters step over a photo of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a protest outside the United States Consulate General in Hong Kong on August 3, 2022 (AP Photo/Qin Cheung)
“China’s declared military exercises represent a clear escalation from the current baseline of Chinese military activity around Taiwan and the previous Taiwan Straits crisis in 1995-1996,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group.
“Beijing is indicating that it rejects Taiwan’s sovereignty.”
Still, analysts have told AFP that China does not aim to escalate the situation beyond its control – at least for now.
“Clearly they believe there are limits to what they are willing to do,” Chong Jae Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.
And Titus Chen, an associate professor of political science at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, said: “The last thing Xi wants is an accidental war.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.