China said its armed forces have launched joint military exercises on an unprecedented scale in six areas ringing Taiwan on Thursday as Beijing seeks to punish the country for hosting US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
A booming sound from what appeared to be artillery fire could be heard in northern Taiwan shortly after 2pm, while Taipei issued a flight warning suggesting pilots avoid an additional area east of the country. The Taiwanese government accused Beijing of trying to change the military status quo in the region and said it was bracing for the impact of the exercises.
Pelosi became the first Speaker of the US House of Representatives to visit Taiwan in 25 years this week as part of a wider Asia trip during which she pledged “ironclad” support for the country’s democratically elected government.
Beijing, which accused Pelosi of violating its claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, waited for her to depart from the island on Wednesday for South Korea before starting the drills.
Analysts said the delay helped avoid immediate clashes with the US, but the exercises were expected to significantly exceed the scale, intensity and complexity of those held during the last crisis in the Taiwan Strait 26 years ago.
They said the manoeuvres risked undermining a fragile, decades-long peace between China and Taiwan, which has enjoyed de facto independence since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, and could trigger conflict between Beijing and the US.
“Starting at noon today until noon on August 7, important military exercise operations will take place, and live-fire shooting will be organised,” Chinese state television said on its official Weibo account. “Six areas surrounding the island have been chosen as the location for these exercises. During this time, related ships and aircraft must not enter the relevant waters and air space!”
At 1.30pm, the People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theatre Command said long-range fire exercises had begun in the Taiwan Strait. “Some time after 1pm, PLA ground forces conducted long-range fire drills in the Taiwan Strait,” it said on Weibo. “They made precision strikes towards a specific area in the east part of the Taiwan Strait and achieved the expected effect.”
The US military said one of its aircraft carriers was conducting routine operations east of the Philippines. “USS Ronald Reagan and her strike group are under way in the Philippine Sea continuing normal, scheduled operations as part of her routine patrol in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet said.
Two other US warships have been seen south of Japan and east of Taiwan. China’s two aircraft carriers have also been outside their ports since earlier this week, in areas north and south of the Taiwan Strait.
In several spots around Taiwan closest to the announced exercise areas, there was no sign of military activity as of 12.30pm. According to ship tracking website MarineTraffic, traffic in the areas the PLA has declared off-limits was thinner than usual, but some fishing and cargo vessels were passing through.
But Taiwan’s government said China had added another exercise area off the island’s east coast. The Civil Aviation Authority issued a Notice to Airmen early Thursday prohibiting aircraft from entering an area south of Japan’s Yonaguni Island and east of Taiwan “in the interest of aviation safety”. The transport ministry told ships to avoid the area.
Beijing denounced Pelosi’s visit in a barrage of propaganda as a provocation and singled out some politicians from Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive party as targets for future “punishment”.
The Taiwan Affairs Office, the Chinese department in charge of handling Beijing’s day-to-day interaction with the island, said China’s reaction to Pelosi’s trip was “justified, legal and reasonable”.
On state television, a PLA analyst said the drills would “trap Taiwan independence elements inside the island”.
Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing