TAIPEI – China launched unprecedented live-fire military drills in six areas that ring Taiwan on Thursday morning, just a day after a visit by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the self-ruled island that Beijing regards as its sovereign territory.
Chinese navy ships and military aircraft briefly crossed the Taiwan Strait median line on Thursday morning, a Taiwan source claimed.
Around 10 Chinese navy ships crossed the median line and remained in the area from Wednesday night through midday on Thursday, and multiple Chinese military aircraft briefly crossed the median line on Thursday morning, said the person, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Soon after the scheduled start at 0400 GMT, Chinese state media CCTV said the drills had begun and would end at 0400 GMT on Sunday. The drills include live firing on the waters and in the airspace surrounding Taiwan, CCTV said.
Taiwan officials have hit back at the drills, claiming they violate United Nations rules, invade Taiwan’s territorial space and are a direct challenge to free air and sea navigation.
The move was branded “irresponsible, illegitimate behaviour,” by Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
Taiwan’s cabinet spokesman, expressing serious condemnation of the drills, said also that websites of the defence ministry, the foreign ministry and the presidential office were attacked by hackers.
On Wednesday night, just hours after Pelosi left for South Korea, unidentified aircraft, probably drones, flew above the area of Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen islands near the mainland coast, Taiwan’s defence ministry said.
“We immediately fired flares to issue warnings and to drive them away. After that, they turned around. They came into our restricted area and that’s why we dispersed them,” he said.
China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory and reserves the right to take it by force, said on Thursday its differences with the self-ruled island were an internal affair.
“Our punishment of pro-Taiwan independence diehards, external forces is reasonable, lawful,” China’s Beijing-based Taiwan Affairs Office said.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan a “manic, irresponsible and highly irrational” act bu the United States, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Wang, speaking at a meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, said China had made the utmost diplomatic effort to avert crisis, but would never allow its core interests to be hurt.
The foreign ministers in a statement had earlier warned that volatility caused by tensions in the Taiwan Strait could lead to “miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers”.
Unusually, the drills in six areas around Taiwan were announced with a locator map circulated by China’s official Xinhua news agency earlier this week – a factor that for some analysts and scholars shows the need to play to both domestic and foreign audiences.
On Thursday, the top eight trending items on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service were related to Taiwan, with most expressing support for the drills or fury at Pelosi.
“Let’s reunite the motherland,” several users wrote.
In Beijing, security in the area around the U.S. Embassy remained unusually tight on Thursday as it has been throughout this week. There were no signs of significant protests or calls to boycott U.S. products.
“I think this (Pelosi’s visit) is a good thing,” said a man surnamed Zhao in the capital’s central business district. “It gives us an opportunity to surround Taiwan, then to use this opportunity to take Taiwan by force. I think we should thank Comrade Pelosi.”
Pelosi, the highest-level U.S. visitor to Taiwan in 25 years, praised its democracy and pledged American solidarity during her brief stopover, adding that Chinese anger could not stop world leaders from travelling there.
China summoned the U.S. ambassador in Beijing in protest against her visit and halted several agricultural imports from Taiwan.
“Our delegation came to Taiwan to make unequivocally clear that we will not abandon Taiwan,” Pelosi told Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who Beijing suspects of pushing for formal independence – a red line for China.
“Now, more than ever, America’s solidarity with Taiwan is crucial, and that’s the message we are bringing here today.”
The United States and the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven nations warned China against using Pelosi’s visit as a pretext for military action against Taiwan.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said earlier in the week that Pelosi was within her rights to visit Taiwan, while stressing that the trip did not constitute a violation of Chinese sovereignty or America’s longstanding “one-China” policy.
The United States has no official diplomatic relations with Taiwan but is bound by American law to provide it with the means to defend itself.
China views visits by U.S. officials to Taiwan as sending an encouraging signal to the pro-independence camp on the island. Taiwan rejects China’s sovereignty claims, saying only the Taiwanese people can decide the island’s future.
Reporting by Yimou Lee; Additional reporting by Tony Munroe; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore