Unprecedented Chinese live-fire maritime drills got underway on Thursday with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) threatening 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 international state broadcaster CGTN said “military exercises and training activities, including live-fire drills around Taiwan island” have begun.
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.”
Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said it is closely monitoring the situation, strengthening military alerts, and “will respond appropriately.”
The ministry said that unidentified aircraft, probably drones, were spotted over Taiwan’s Kinmen islands on Wednesday night. During the day, 22 Chinese military aircraft also crossed the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait, it said.
On Thursday morning, the U.S. Air Force dispatched a 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 Seventh Fleet spokesperson was quoted by Reuters as saying.
The maritime drills that see PLA troops entering an area within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) 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.
Beijiing has repeatedly condemned the visit as a “grave violation” of China’s sovereignty and integrity, and threatened “strongest countermeasures.”
Pelosi is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the democratic island in 25 years.
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 said they would “make the chance of an incident real.”
Joint military exercises
The PLA’s Eastern Theater Command already conducted a number of military exercises around Taiwan after 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 the 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.
The maritime drills, that started on Thursday and last until Sunday, have attracted the most attention, not least because they are set to be larger in scale than those in 1996 during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis but also unprecedented in many ways.
For the first time, Chinese troops are expected to enter the 12-nautical-mile waters around Taiwan which, according to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, serve as the island’s sovereign territorial waters.
“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.
“What will get the most attention are missile tests, particularly if they land close to Taiwanese claimed waters or fly over Taiwanese territory,” he told RFA.
In the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996), a series of missile tests were conducted by the PLA in the waters surrounding Taiwan. The PLA live ammunition exercises led to the U.S. intervening by staging the biggest display of American military might in Asia since the Vietnam War.