At least 11 Chinese missiles hit the seas north, south and east of Taiwan on Thursday, less than 24 hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi celebrated the island as a bastion of democracy alongside the Chinese autocracy. The People’s Liberation Army stated that its missiles “hit all their targets accurately”, although five fell in Japanese waters.
The Chinese military called the maneuvers a prelude to a larger show of force aimed at punishing the island for a visit by Pelosi that questioned Beijing’s claims to Taiwan. The exercises, which are drawing ever closer to Taiwan and expected to last 72 hours, will also give Chinese forces valuable practice should they one day be ordered to surround and attack the island.
But tensions could rise dangerously high, especially if something goes wrong.
Top Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said he hopes to end up unifying Taiwan and China through peaceful steps. But, like its predecessors, it has not ruled out the use of force, and China’s military buildup has reached a point where some commanders and analysts think an invasion is an increasingly plausible scenario, albeit still very likely. risky.
Though unlikely, it is leaving the region on edge. And tensions could escalate dangerously, especially if something goes wrong.
On Thursday, the Japanese government said five Chinese ballistic missiles had landed in its exclusive economic zone, the first time any missile had landed in those waters. The area is outside the country’s territorial waters, where international ships can transit freely.
Another missile, the government said, landed about 80 kilometers northwest of Yonaguni, a small island in the southern tip of Japan and a short distance from Taiwan; the missile did not fall in Japan’s economic zone.
The Japanese government filed a diplomatic protest with the Chinese government. “This is a serious matter that affects our national security and the safety of the population,” said Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi.
On Wednesday, before the missile incident, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, told reporters that Beijing did not recognize the area from Japan.
“Since China and Japan have not demarcated a boundary in the relevant waters, China does not accept the notion of a so-called ‘Japanese exclusive economic zone,'” Hua said in response to a question about whether China’s military exercise would affect those waters.
The six zones for China’s exercises were chosen because of their importance in a potential campaign to cordon off Taiwan and repel foreign intervention, Maj. Gen. Meng Xiangqing, a strategy professor at the National Defense University in Beijing, said in an interview on Monday. Chinese television.
One zone covers the narrowest part of the Taiwan Strait. Others could be used to blockade a major port or attack three of Taiwan’s main military bases. One of them, facing southern Taiwan, “creates the conditions to close the door and hit the dog,” he said, using a Chinese saying that refers to blocking an enemy’s escape route.
“Everyone can wait and see,” General Meng said. “It is the first time that the military will conduct a joint military operation around the entire island of Taiwan,” he said. “It must be said that, although it is an exercise that resembles a real combat, at any moment it can turn into a real combat.”
“Seize the momentum to circle,” read a slogan used by the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, when announcing the start of the drills.
The spread of belligerent propaganda from China, and the resulting rise in nationalist sentiment, may present a good time for a new offensive for Xi, the leader of the Communist Party. His path to a third term as leader at a party congress later this year has been hampered by faltering economic growth, largely caused by the Covid outbreaks and Xi’s fiercely strict response to them.
Xi has more than propaganda issues at stake. Over the past eight years, he has upgraded the People’s Liberation Army, accelerating its transition into a series of advanced forces capable of projecting Chinese power, including over Taiwan. The exercises could give their commanders valuable experience in joint air, naval and missile operations around the island.
“They’re definitely going to use this as an excuse to do something to help them prepare for a possible invasion,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, who is part of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies that studies China’s military and its potential to attack Taiwan.
“It’s not just about the messages,” he said. “Under the guise of signaling, they are basically trying to test their ability to perform complex maneuvers that are necessary for an amphibious assault on Taiwan.”
It is unclear how close Chinese forces will get to Taiwan during the exercises, which are scheduled to end on Sunday.
In a possible sign of what to expect, China’s Eastern Theater Command, which covers Taiwan, said it was mobilizing more than 100 fighters, bombers and other aircraft, as well as more than 10 destroyers and frigates, to “carry carry out joint closure and control operations”.
Two dozen Chinese military aircraft they crossed briefly the median line in the Taiwan Strait, an informal boundary that Chinese planes have rarely crossed, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said.
The Chinese military could also test Taiwan’s responses by firing into territorial waters directly off its coast. Three of the exercise areas have corners that jut out into those waters.
“This indicates that since Taiwan is part of China, it doesn’t have a 12-nautical-mile zone,” said William Overholt, a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School, referring to the maritime perimeter by which Taiwan defines its territorial waters. “Taiwan has to defend its area as an independent country or give in.”
China is trying to bolster its influence over Taiwan by increasing deterrence following the visit of Pelosi, who praised the island’s people for standing strong against Beijing, several Chinese analysts said.
“The tendency of external forces to exploit Taiwan to contain China has become increasingly clear,” Wu Yongping, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who studies Taiwan, said in written responses to our questions. “The Chinese government has adopted some unprecedented military operations in response to this.”
One of the designated exercise zones is off the eastern coast of Taiwan, at the furthest point from mainland China. When China held threatening military exercises in front of Taiwan during a crisis 25 years ago, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) didn’t go that far.
“It’s an intended message to highlight the PLA’s increased ability to project power beyond mainland China, and it’s a visible sign that China can encircle the island,” said Brian Hart, a member of the China Power Project at the Center of Strategic and International Studies. “It will also complicate traffic to and around the island from all sides.”
Kinmen Island, which is controlled by Taiwan and is just over nine kilometers from the Chinese coast, reported that flying objects of unclear origin, likely drones, flew over it on Wednesday night.
“I’m not worried about war, but accidents are,” said Cheng Yu-han, 31, a computer engineer in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. He was a bit nervous when he heard the sound of planes streaking through the Taipei sky this morning. “I hope Taiwanese people can get through this crisis safely,” he said.
After decades of tensions and various military crises with China, many in Taiwan have become accustomed to threats. But even if China does not take the most incendiary measures this time, experts and officials on the island fear the operations could trigger an incident – a collision at sea or in the air, or a misfired missile – that could inflame tensions into in a complete crisis.
White House and Pentagon officials have been watching the situation closely without explaining how they might respond. A surveillance service run by the United States Naval Institute reported Monday that a strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was in the Philippine Sea, some distance east of Taiwan, and that the USS Tripoli, a assault amphibious, was also in that area. On Thursday there were no announcements about US naval vessels near the Chinese exercises.
“Before, the Chinese communists conducted military exercises from a distance, now they have become close,” Chang Yan-ting, a retired Taiwanese air force deputy commander, said in an interview. “They are already at our door.”
Jane Perlez and John Liu contributed reporting. Claire Fu and Li You, with research.
Chris Buckley is the chief China correspondent and has lived most of the last 30 years in China after growing up in Sydney, Australia. Before joining The Times in 2012 he was a Beijing correspondent for Reuters. @ChuBailiang
Amy Chang Chien covers news in mainland China and Taiwan. She is based in Taipei. @amy_changchien