China has launched its largest-ever live-fire military drill off the coast of Taiwan as it blockades the island nation.
The country launched war games in the waters around Taiwan today in a show of force symbolizing heightened tensions in the region.
It comes after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island, a move that angered Beijing, which sees the island as part of its territory.
Pelosi, second in line to the presidency, left Taiwan yesterday after threats from China, which vowed to ‘punish’ her visit.
While she was in the country, Chinese military warships set out to blockade the island, which Beijing claimed was a ‘victim’ of ‘provocatives’.
Taipei has warned that it ‘will not back down’ as it aims to ‘maintain the principle of preparing for war without asking for war’.
The exercise is in an international shipping lane important for the supply of semiconductors and electronic equipment from East Asia to the rest of the world and is expected to encroach on Taiwan’s territorial waters.
A Chinese military helicopter takes off from Pingtan Island, one of China’s mainland islands, close to Taiwan. The Asian country today launched ‘live-firing’ war games in the waters around Taiwan
In the first seven months of this year, nearly half of the world’s ships passed through the narrow Taiwan Strait – which separates the island from the Chinese mainland – in the first seven months of this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Pelosi’s visit earlier this week led to a dramatic increase in tensions as she The highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.
Her presence made it ‘unequivocally clear’ that the United States ‘will not abandon’ a democratic ally like Taiwan.
According to state media, the drills, which began at 12pm (4pm GMT), included ‘live-firing’.
‘Six key areas around the island have been selected for this actual combat exercise and during this period, the relevant ships and aircraft should not enter the relevant waters and airspace,’ state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The exercises will take place in several zones around Taiwan – in some places just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the island’s coast – and will end on Sunday afternoon.
Taiwan’s defense ministry said it was closely monitoring the drills and that the island was ready for conflict, but would not seek it.
China’s military drills, scheduled to begin at 12:00 pm (0400 GMT), will ‘include training activities including live-fire drills’, Beijing said.
Chinese forces have surrounded the island, with some training exercises taking place in Taiwan’s territorial waters.
“The Ministry of National Defense has emphasized that it will adhere to the principle of preparing for war without waging war and not to escalate conflict and create controversy,” it said in a statement.
Beijing’s nationalist state-run tabloid Global Times quoted military analysts as saying the exercise was “unprecedented” and would be the first time missiles would be flown over Taiwan.
“The PLA will launch long-range artillery directly across the Taiwan Strait for the first time,” the newspaper said, using the Chinese military’s official name, the People’s Liberation Army.
Taiwan has described the exercises as ‘irrational moves that challenge the international order’.
The Group of Seven industrialized nations also condemned the drills, saying in a statement that there was ‘no justification for using the visit as an aggressive military exercise in the Taiwan Strait’.
Taiwan’s Maritime and Port Bureau on Wednesday issued a warning to ships to avoid areas used for Chinese drills.
Taiwan’s cabinet said the exercise would disrupt 18 international routes passing through its Flight Information Region (FIR).
Beijing has defended its military operations as ‘necessary and justified’, blaming the escalation on the United States and its allies.
“In the current conflict surrounding Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the US is the instigator, China is the victim,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing on Wednesday.
A Chinese military source told AFP the drills would be conducted “in preparation for actual combat”.
‘If the Taiwanese army deliberately contacts the PLA and accidentally fires a gun, the PLA will retaliate fiercely and the Taiwanese side will bear all the consequences,’ the source said.
Taiwan’s 23 million people have long lived with the possibility of invasion, but the threat has intensified under President Xi Jinping, China’s most assertive ruler in a generation.
Only 130 km wide at its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is a major international shipping channel between all but democratic Taiwan and its vast authoritarian neighbour.
It is now keen to project strength ahead of a meeting this autumn between the United States, Taiwan and the Chinese leadership, a key ruling party in which Xi is expected to be handed an unprecedented third term.
‘The military exercises announced by China represent an existing baseline of Chinese military activity around Taiwan and a clear escalation since the last Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-1996,’ said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group.
‘Beijing signals rejection of Taiwan’s sovereignty.’
Nevertheless, analysts told AFP that China does not intend to escalate the situation beyond its control – at least for now.
‘They clearly recognize that there are limits to what they are willing to do,’ Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.
And Titus Chen, associate professor of political science at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, said: ‘The last thing Xi wants is an accidental war.’