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China fires ballistic missiles into the sea off Taiwan

Unprecedented Chinese live-fire maritime drills got underway on Thursday with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launching ballistic missiles into the waters around Taiwan, the Taiwanese defense ministry said.

The Chinese military “launched a number of Dongfeng ballistic missiles into the waters surrounding northeastern and southwestern Taiwan at about 13:56 p.m.,” the ministry said without specifying the range.

Matsu, Wuqiu, Dongyin and some other outlying islands have been put on heightened alert after the PLA fired long-range rockets in the surrounding areas, the ministry added.

Before the launch, the PLA threatened to fire missiles over Taiwan and enter the island’s territorial waters for the first time, in a scenario that analysts describe as ‘The Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.’

Chinese military helicopters fly past Pingtan island, one of mainland China’s closest point from Taiwan, on August 4, 2022, ahead of massive military drills off Taiwan. CREDIT: AFP

China’s ‘irrational action’

Chinese international state broadcaster CGTN said “military exercises and training activities including live-fire drills around Taiwan island” have begun.

The PLA “conducted long-range live-fire shooting training in the Taiwan Straits on Thursday at around 1:00 p.m. and carried out precision strikes on specific areas in the eastern part of the Taiwan Straits,” CGTN added.

The state-supported Global Times said the Chinese military “conducted long-range artillery live-fire shooting drills in the Taiwan Straits, striking targets on the eastern side of the Straits and achieving the expected outcome.”

Taiwan’s defense ministry said it has activated relevant defense systems, and strengthened combat readiness. 

“The Ministry of National Defense condemned this irrational action that undermines regional peace,” it said in a statement.

The maritime drills at six locations around Taiwan, that started on Thursday and last until Sunday, are set to be larger in scale than those in 1996 during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, and also unprecedented in many ways.

For the first time, Chinese troops are expected to enter the 12-nautical-mile (22 kilometers) waters around Taiwan which, according to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, serve as the island’s sovereign territorial waters.  

Conventional missiles are expected to be test-launched from naval vessels that are sailing to the east of Taiwan and from the mainland, according to the PLA Eastern Theater Command. 

Chinese analysts, quoted by state media, said the missiles “would fly over the island.” 

“We need to recognize that we are in a major militarized crisis, and start calling it by its name: the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis,” said Christopher Twomey, a China military expert at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School who spoke to RFA in a personal capacity.

“What will get the most attention are missile tests, particularly if they land close to Taiwanese claimed waters or fly over Taiwanese territory,” he said.

Newspapers in Beijing on Wednesday, reporting Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and showing maps of locations where the PLA will conduct military exercises and training activities including live-fire drills. CREDIT: Reuters

High level of attention

In the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996), a series of missile tests was conducted by the PLA in the waters surrounding Taiwan and the PLA live ammunition exercises led to intervention by the U.S., which staged the biggest display of American military might in Asia since the Vietnam War.

“The six areas in which the PLA will execute its live-fire drills until Sunday clearly delineate a military encirclement of Taiwan. To me, it looks like a prelude or preparations for a future scenario that is not primarily focused on amphibious assault, but on blockade,” said Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), a U.S. private think-tank.

“If this is the case, it will not only choke Taiwan, but also directly impact Japan’s security, and the region’s civilian transit as several Asian airlines have already canceled their flights over the broader area,” said Rolland, who previously served as a senior advisor on Asian and Chinese strategic issues at the French Ministry of Defense.

“The exercises will generate a high level of attention from both Taiwan’s military and that of the United States. Both will want to ensure that the exercises are not a cover for an even more offensive action, but also will want to learn about Chinese capabilities and operational practices,” Christopher Twomey said.

The maritime drills that see PLA troops entering an area within 12 nautical miles of Taiwan were announced on Tuesday evening when Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi landed in Taipei for a brief but highly symbolic visit.

Pelosi is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the democratic island in the last 25 years.

Beijing has repeatedly condemned the visit as a “grave violation” of China’s sovereignty and integrity, and threatened the “strongest countermeasures.”

‘Irresponsible drills’

Taiwan’s defense ministry said in a statement that by announcing air-naval live-fire drills around the island, Chinese leaders “made it self-evidently apparent that they seek a cross-strait resolution by force instead of peaceful means.”

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in a media interview on Wednesday called the drills “irresponsible” and they would “make the chance of an incident real.”

“The actors involved are certainly the same as for the three crises in 1954, 1958 and 1995-96, but the geostrategic context is very different,” said NBR’s Nadège Rolland.

“In each of the three previous crises, the U.S. intervened militarily and the military tensions between the PRC [People’s Republic of China] and the ROC [Republic of China] were prolonged but diffused after a rapid initial escalation,” said Rolland, referring to China and Taiwan by their official names.

“It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will get involved this time,” she said, noting that if the survival of Taiwan and Japan is at stake, “it will be impossible for the U.S. not to intervene at a minimum to safeguard the freedom of the sea lanes on which transit the majority of international commerce.”

On Thursday morning, the U.S. Air Force dispatched an RC-135S reconnaissance aircraft to observe the drills but the USS Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, seems to have moved north towards Japan, according to a Beijing-based think-tank that has been tracking regional military movements.

“USS Ronald Reagan and her strike group are underway in the Philippine Sea continuing normal, scheduled operations as part of her routine patrol in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” a U.S. Navy 7th Fleet spokesperson was quoted by Reuters as saying.

“The U.S. should monitor to ensure there isn’t greater escalation and to learn about the PLA’s practices and capabilities. Beyond that, it is important to coordinate with other regional allies,” said Christopher Twomey.  

“It will be important to also signal to allies and partners that the U.S. would be a reliable ally if military aggression is undertaken by Beijing,” the analyst said.

In his opinion, the latest developments will have “a legacy effect of deepening the militarization of the cross-strait relationship and Sino-American competition.”

Meanwhile, Nadège Rolland warned that in previous crises that involved the U.S. and China, tensions eventually abated thanks to a combination of factors including the U.S.’s military superiority over the PLA and Beijing’s overarching strategic priorities such as joining the World Trade Organization). 

“Today, both have drastically changed,” she said.

Reunification by force

The blockage-style operation seen in current military drills “could be one of the action plans taken in the future for achieving the reunification by force,” Herman Shuai, a retired Taiwan general, was quoted by China’s Global Times as saying on Wednesday.

China considers self-ruled Taiwan a Chinese province that must be reunited with the mainland at all costs.

The PLA’s Eastern Theater Command has already conducted a number of military exercises around Taiwan upon the U.S. House Speaker’s arrival.

The joint naval-air exercises which started on Tuesday and continued on Wednesday were carried out in the north, southwest and southeast waters and airspace off Taiwan, according to the PLA Daily.

Maj. Gen. Gu Zhong, deputy chief of staff of the PLA Eastern Theater Command was quoted by the newspaper as saying that Chinese troops conducted “targeted training exercises of joint blockade, strikes on land and maritime targets, airspace control operations as well as the live firing of precision-guided munitions.”

“This round of joint military operations is a necessary response to the dangerous move made by the U.S. and Taiwan authorities on the Taiwan question,” Gu was quoted as saying.