China has begun three days of military drills surrounding Taiwan after the island’s president met with the US House Speaker in defiance of Beijing’s repeated threats.
Taiwan has criticized the exercises, known as “United Sharp Sword.” Chinese officials haven’t ruled out using force to annex Taiwan because they view it as part of their own country.
Seen as “a serious warning against the Taiwan separatist forces’ cooperation with external forces, and a necessary step to preserve national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the drills were announced by the Chinese military’s Eastern Theater Command on Saturday.
The task force coordinated patrols around the island at the same time to establish an encirclement and deterrence posture, according to the Eastern Theater Command.
The Taiwanese defense ministry reported that a total of 71 Chinese aircraft flew over the Taiwan Strait on Saturday, with 45 of them entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
Also discovered were nine PLA (People’s Liberation Army) China warships.
The drills come only one day after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen returned from a 10-day trip to Central America and the United States, during which she met with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Beijing had earlier promised to take “stern and determined actions” if the trip went ahead and had repeatedly warned against it.
The self-governing democracy of Taiwan is claimed by China, even though it has never been under its control. Taiwan has been the target of years of diplomatic isolation by China.
Chinese warplane incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, a self-declared buffer zone outside of its territorial airspace, happen virtually every day.
On Saturday, the Taiwanese defense ministry announced that it was closely monitoring the situation and will use whatever means possible to safeguard the country’s security and sovereignty.
The Taiwan Strait is being purposefully agitated by the People’s Liberation Army. In addition to undermining peace and stability, it also has a detrimental effect on regional growth and safety, according to the ministry.
The ministry had earlier in the day on Saturday declared that it would react to the drills in a composed, considered, and serious manner and would avoid trying to inflame things.
Similar measures were used by China in response to Nancy Pelosi’s travel to Taiwan in August when she was the speaker of the US House. The country conducted several military exercises that encircled the island and fired missiles over it.
Several commentators believed that those exercises marked a significant uptick in China’s military intimidation of Taiwan because they were the first time the country had fired missiles over the island.
The incident increased tensions between Beijing and Tokyo as some of those missiles also landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone close to Japanese islands to the north of Taiwan.
During the exercises in August, dozens of Chinese warplanes flew above Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, and PLA Navy warships conducted maneuvers in the waters around Taiwan.
Because Tsai’s conversation with McCarthy took place on US land, officials in Taiwan allegedly anticipated a less negative response.
Tsai’s journey was presented as routine by US and Taiwanese authorities, who cited numerous instances in which a Taiwanese leader had traveled through the US, to avoid upsetting Beijing and igniting another military crisis.
Nonetheless, the political significance of Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy cannot be overstated. It was the most senior audience ever given to a sitting Taiwan president on American soil, with an official second in line to the presidency after the vice president.
Their encounter at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library underlined the growing links between Taipei and Washington, even though they remain unofficial. The United States lost diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in 1979, implying that it does not officially recognize it as a country. It does, however, help Taiwan’s ability to defend itself by selling armaments to Taipei.
Following their discussion on Wednesday, Tsai and McCarthy agreed that the US should continue to strengthen its support for Taiwan.
“We must continue to sell weaponry to Taiwan and ensure that such deliveries reach Taiwan on time.” We must also improve our economic collaboration, notably in commerce and technology,” he said on Twitter.
China is keeping an eye on things
Many believe that a meeting in California would be less likely to irritate Beijing than a McCarthy trip to Taiwan.
Pelosi’s journey, the first by a politician of that level to the island in 25 years, stoked nationalist and anti-American discourse in mainland China to a fever pitch.
Domestic discourse has so far been noticeably muted in China’s tightly regulated media environment throughout this period.
Yet, observers warn that the stakes are still quite high for Beijing’s response, particularly for Beijing itself.
A harsh reaction might turn voters away from Taiwan’s main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), which is largely regarded as being more sympathetic toward Beijing, as the country gears up for a presidential election in January.
It might also clash with another prominent trip that is currently taking place: a tour of mainland China by Ma Ying-jeou, a former president of Taiwan and senior KMT member. This is the first visit by a current or former Taiwan leader since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
Beijing shouldn’t want to sabotage Ma’s travel since it is a “once-in-a-half-century opportunity to send a conciliatory message between the two sides,” according to political analyst Sung.
Beijing is also painfully conscious that its activities against Taiwan have come under a much sharper global spotlight as a result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a close diplomatic partner of Xi’s. Putin’s rhetoric on Ukraine parallels Xi’s rhetoric on Taiwan.
Beijing has recently pushed to pose itself as a peace broker in that conflict, particularly as it seeks to mend strained ties with Europe.
As Tsai is due to meet with McCarthy this week, French President Emanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will visit China – a crucial opportunity that Xi may not want to eclipse with military bluster.
A forceful response risks escalating tensions with the United States, only six months after Xi and US President Joe Biden called for improved communication during a face-to-face meeting in Bali.
“(A less obviously confrontational approach) would signal that Beijing does not want to exacerbate tensions with the US to the point where they risk becoming out of hand,” said Steve Tsang, head of the SOAS China Institute in London.
“A reset in US-China relations is not on the table, but an easing of tensions is not out of the question.”