Chinese missiles strike seas off Taiwan, and some land near Japan

By Chris Buckley and Amy Chang Chien

BEIJING / TAIPEI – At least 11 Chinese missiles struck seas north, south and east of Taiwan on Thursday (4), less than 24 hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi celebrated the island as a bulwark of democracy next to autocratic China. The People’s Liberation Army declared that its missiles “all precisely hit their targets,” even as Japan said five landed in its waters.

The Chinese military called the exercises a prelude to a bigger show of force intended to punish the island for a visit by Pelosi that challenged Beijing’s claims to Taiwan. The drills, jostling ever closer to Taiwan and expected to run 72 hours, will also give Chinese forces valuable practice should they one day be ordered to encircle and attack the island.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has said he hopes to eventually unify Taiwan and China through peaceful steps, as part of his vision for a “rejuvenated” and powerful nation. But like his predecessors, he has not ruled out force, and China’s military build-up has reached a point where some commanders and analysts think an invasion is an increasingly plausible, though still highly risky, scenario.

Even if imminent conflict is unlikely, the exercises are putting the region on edge. And tensions could dangerously escalate, especially if something goes wrong.

The Japanese government on Thursday said five Chinese ballistic missiles had fallen into its exclusive economic zone, the first time any had landed in those waters. The zone is outside of the country’s territorial waters, where international ships can pass freely.

Another missile, the government said, landed 50 miles northwest of Yonaguni, a small island at Japan’s southernmost tip and just a short distance from Taiwan. The missile did not land in Japan’s economic zone.

Japan lodged a protest with the Chinese government. “This is a grave issue that concerns our national security and the safety of the people,” said Japan’s defence minister, Nobuo Kishi.

On Wednesday (3), before the missile incident, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, told reporters that Beijing did not recognize Japan’s zone.

“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 answer to a question about whether China’s military drill would impinge on those waters.

The six areas for China’s exercises were chosen for their importance in a potential campaign to seal off Taiwan and repel foreign intervention, Maj. Gen. Meng Xiangqing, a professor of strategy at the National Defence University in Beijing, said in an interview on Chinese television.

One zone covers the narrowest part of the Taiwan Strait. Others could be used to block a major port or attack three of Taiwan’s main military bases. One facing southern Taiwan, “creates conditions to bolt the door and beat the dog,” he said, using a Chinese saying that refers to blocking an enemy’s escape route. He signalled that a bigger show of force using live ammunition was on the way.

China’s main state-run television network, CCTV, stated one of the missiles flew over Taiwan, marking another escalation of Chinese pressure on the island and risking miscalculation. Meng said it was a first for China’s military, though neither the Chinese nor Taiwanese governments have officially confirmed the missile arc.

“You all can wait and see,” Meng said. “This is the first time that the military will hold a joint military operation around all of Taiwan island,” he said. “It should be said that although this is an exercise resembling actual combat, it can at any time turn into real combat.”

“Use the momentum to surround,” read a slogan used by People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, as it announced that the drills had begun.

China’s outpouring of pugnacious propaganda, and an accompanying surge in nationalist sentiment, may be a welcome rallying point for Xi, the Communist Party leader. His march to an increasingly certain third term as leader at a party congress later this year has been weighed down by faltering economic growth, in large part caused by COVID-19 outbreaks and Xi’s strict response to them.

Xi has more than propaganda points at stake. Over the past eight years he has overhauled the People’s Liberation Army, accelerating its transition to an array of advanced forces capable of projecting Chinese power, including over Taiwan. The exercises could provide his commanders with valuable experience in joint operations of air, naval and rocket forces around the island.

“They’re definitely going to use this as an excuse to do something that helps them prepare for a possible invasion,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University who studies China’s military and its potential to attack Taiwan.

“It’s not just about the messaging,” she said. “Under the guise of signalling, they’re trying to basically test their ability to conduct complex manoeuvres that are necessary for an amphibious assault on Taiwan.”

It remains unclear how close Chinese forces will come to Taiwan during the exercises, which are scheduled to end Sunday.

In one possible sign of what to expect, China’s Eastern Theatre Command, which encompasses Taiwan, said it was mobilizing more than 100 fighter planes, bombers and other aircraft, as well as more than 10 destroyers and frigates, to “carry out joint closure and control operations.”

Twenty-two Chinese military aircraft briefly crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, an informal boundary that Chinese planes have crossed only infrequently, the Taiwanese defence ministry said.

The Chinese military could also test Taiwan’s responses by firing into the territorial waters directly off its coast. Three of the exercise zones have corners jutting into those waters.

“It signals that, since Taiwan is part of China, it doesn’t get a 12-nautical-mile zone,” said William Overholt, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, referring to the sea perimeter by which Taiwan defines its territorial waters. “Taiwan either has to defend its zone like an independent country or cave.”

China is trying to reinforce its influence over Taiwan by upgrading deterrence after the visit by Pelosi, who praised the island’s people for standing strong against Beijing, several Chinese analysts said.

“The tendency of external forces exploiting Taiwan to contain China has become increasingly clear,” Wu Yongping, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who studies Taiwan, said in written answers to questions. “The Chinese government has adopted some unprecedented military operations in response to this.”

One of the designated exercise zones lies off the eastern coast of Taiwan, at the farthest point from the Chinese mainland. When China held menacing military exercises off Taiwan during a crisis 25 years ago, the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, did not go that far.

“It’s an intentional message meant to highlight the PLA’s heightened capacity to project power farther from the Chinese mainland, and it’s a visible signal that China can surround the island,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It will also complicate traffic to and around the island from all sides.”

Kinmen Island, a Taiwanese-controlled island a little over 6 miles off China’s coast, reported that on Wednesday night, flying objects of unclear origin — probably drones — flew overhead.

-New York Times

 

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