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China launches military exercises around Taiwan after Pelosi’s visit

China’s People’s Liberation Army released video on Aug. 4 of a live-fire missile exercise targeting waters off the coast of Taiwan. (Video: People's Liberation Army)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — China unleashed a show of force against Taiwan on Thursday, firing missiles into the sea and threatening the island’s territorial waters in retaliation for Taipei’s hosting of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a controversial visit.

The military exercises have sent tensions in the Taiwan Strait spiking to the highest level in decades, raising fears of a dangerous miscalculation in one of the world’s most charged geopolitical flash points.

As the maneuvers got underway, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said the Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carried out long-range, live-fire exercises and “precision strikes” on eastern parts of the strait. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said the PLA fired 11 Dongfeng ballistic missiles into the waters off northeastern and southwestern Taiwan on Thursday afternoon.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters Thursday that five Chinese ballistic missiles, launched as part of live-fire exercises, had landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which is “a first.” He said Tokyo had lodged protests through diplomatic channels, the Reuters news agency reported.

Pelosi’s Taiwan visit ushers in new phase of China’s pressure campaign

About 10 Chinese naval ships briefly crossed the strait’s median line on Wednesday night and remained in the area through midday Thursday, while Chinese military aircraft crossed the unofficial maritime boundary Thursday morning, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed source briefed on the developments. A day earlier, during Pelosi’s visit, 22 Chinese military aircraft breached the line, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry.

The Pentagon, in a move first reported by the Wall Street Journal, has delayed a planned test of its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, according to two U.S. defense officials, to avoid fueling tensions.

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its battle group will remain near Taiwan to monitor the situation, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday. He called the missiles launched toward Taiwan “irresponsible.”

The visit by Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taipei infuriated Chinese leaders, who claimed that the high-level delegation was a violation of China’s territorial rights and a deliberate provocation amid deteriorating U.S.-China relations. In response, Chinese authorities announced military exercises in six areas around Taiwan, in what Taiwanese officials said was tantamount to a “sea and air blockade.”

China’s ruling Communist Party has never governed Taiwan, but Beijing claims that the de facto independent democracy of 23 million people is an inalienable part of its territory and threatens to seize it by force.

The White House had urged China not to overreact, saying Pelosi’s trip did not signal any change in U.S. policy, which acknowledges Beijing’s claims while maintaining strong ties with Taipei that stop short of formal diplomatic recognition. But the Chinese military drills, set to run through Sunday, represent Beijing’s efforts to establish a new normal of encroachment on its rival. In 2020, China denied the existence of the median line in the Taiwan Strait, after years of largely respecting the informal boundary that has helped prevent conflict in the 100-mile-wide waterway.

“Beijing may use the Pelosi visit as an opportunity to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group.

The Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, quoted an anonymous Chinese military expert describing the drills as a “new beginning” for PLA activities around Taiwan, which would not be limited to their previous areas and would instead “regularly take place on Taiwan’s doorstep.”

China in the past has used times of spiking geopolitical tension to alter previously accepted norms of military behavior. In 2012, during a standoff with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu, China launched coast guard patrols in the region. Those patrols continue today.

The six exclusion zones in this week’s maneuvers affect Taiwan on all sides and, for the first time, include an area to the east of the island — a way of demonstrating China’s ability to target Taiwanese forces operating from bases in Hualien and Taitung.

“It’s quite clear they’re going to be simulating how they might blockade Taiwan in the future,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On Thursday, crowds gathered on Xiaoliuqiu, off the southwestern coast of Taiwan’s main island, to watch for signs of the Chinese firepower. Lee Chih-Hsiang, 38, who runs a hostel on the island, said his customers were mostly worried about whether the drills would affect their ability to go diving.

“I told them not to worry. If China was going to invade, they would have come over already,” he said. “It isn’t something we can stop. Worrying is no use. If we need to go to war, we go to war.”

Hsiao Wen-ming, chairman of Donggang’s Fishermen’s Association in Pingtung near Taiwan’s southern coast, said he is worried about the safety of local fishers. The possibility of more drills will make them uneasy about going out to sea, he said, affecting livelihoods over the long term.

“The Communist Party just does whatever they want. What if it happens again?” he said.

Lu Li-shih, a former lieutenant commander in Taiwan’s navy, said the goal of conducting drills in Taiwan’s territorial waters was to intimidate residents.

“They want regular residents to see,” he said. “The point is to hurt morale.”

Taiwan said the island’s armed forces had launched defense systems and were monitoring the surrounding areas. “We seek no escalation, but we don’t stand down when it comes to our security and sovereignty,” the Defense Ministry posted on Twitter.

The drills are closer to Taiwan than retaliatory Chinese exercises during the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-1996. Three of the six exclusion areas encroach on the 12-nautical-mile littoral zone that Taiwan claims as its territorial waters.

During the 1990s standoff, China fired missiles that landed near the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung, after Taiwan’s then-President Lee Teng-hui visited the United States.

This time, the crisis takes place at a sensitive time for Chinese leader Xi Jinping as he prepares to take on a precedent-breaking third term at a political meeting in the fall. The timing of the drills, after Pelosi left Taiwan, may signal Beijing’s desire to avoid direct confrontation with the United States.

How Taiwan reacted to Pelosi’s visit, from ‘welcome’ to ‘American witch’

“It’s been directed at Taiwan,” Ivan Kanapathy, a former deputy senior Asia director on the White House National Security Council who served in the Trump and Biden administrations, said of China’s response.

“But if military planes come within 12 nautical miles, it’ll be hard to ask Taiwan to exercise restraint. They would be well within their rights to shoot at something within their territory,” he said.

Chinese military experts told CCTV that the exclusion zones were meant to show China’s ability to control the narrowest point of the Taiwan Strait, as well as the point where the Bashi Channel, south of Taiwan, meets the Pacific Ocean, and shipping lanes that lead to the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung.

Meng Xiangqing, a professor at the PLA-run National Defense University, described the approach as “closing the door and beating the dog.”

Nakashima reported from Washington. Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei and Karoun Demirjian and Amy B. Wang in Washington contributed to this report.