Commentary: China’s reaction to Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit is a significant changing of the status quo
China’s major military exercises around Taiwan in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island are an escalation of tensions, and it could reduce Beijing’s room for manoeuvre in the future, says defence writer Mike Yeo.
MELBOURNE: Just as it threatened, China on Thursday (Aug 4) began major military exercises around Taiwan over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island, sending live fire close to Taiwan’s shores.
The exercises, which are due to run until Sunday, will see the People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command - which is responsible for operations in and around Taiwan - conduct “long-range live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait and conventional missile tests in the waters off the eastern coast of the island”.
China announced the drills in six blocks of waters and airspace off Taiwan’s north, east and south for the exercises shortly after Pelosi landed on the island on Tuesday night.
A seventh block of water and airspace in the Western Pacific east of Taiwan was gazetted for the exercises by China’s Port Bureau on Thursday, with the end date of the exercise extended to 10am on Monday.
The drills began at noon on Thursday, with China firing ballistic missiles and deploying fighter jets and warships.
PLA ground combat units were also involved in some of the exercises on land and on the coast, with photos and videos posted on social media showing tanks and other armoured vehicles reportedly in or heading towards Fujian Province, just across the Taiwan Strait from the island.
Videos on social media purportedly showed multiple artillery rocket launches and low-flying military helicopters filmed from Pingtan island off Xiamen.
Chinese state media also broadcast images of DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles (with a range of 600km to 900km depending on variant) being launched as part of the exercise, claiming hits on the gazetted exercise areas to the north, east and south of Taiwan.
The island’s defence ministry announced 11 such missiles were launched by China on Thursday afternoon.
Some of the military movements have indeed been geolocated to the province at places like the city of Xiamen or heading in that direction, although several others have been identified as photos and videos taken from earlier events such as the 2019 Beijing military parade or geolocated to places far from Fujian.
There are also concerns that the Chinese military buildup near Taiwan echoes that of Russia in the lead-up to its February invasion of Ukraine, where a seemingly endless stream of photos and videos showed Russian military vehicles approaching Ukraine from all points of the compass, backing up warnings from some Western intelligence agencies about the forthcoming invasion.
However, this is unlikely to be the case for Taiwan, with the PLA troop movements appearing to be much smaller in scale so far. The gathering of forces also appears to lack the support elements like engineering and electronic warfare units which would be crucial to the success of an actual conflict, making the current movements more akin to a show of force rather than a preparation for war.
Western intelligence agencies have also not suggested that there are indications of anything beyond the planned exercises, making it all the more likely that it is just China expressing its displeasure at Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
China’s way of expressing its displeasure over the visit to Taiwan by the highest-ranking member of any US government since 1997 is nevertheless a significant change from previous occasions, in particular the gazetting of exercise areas so close to Taiwan’s shoreline.
The closest of these is a mere 9 nautical miles (16.7km) from Taiwan’s southwestern coast not far from the port city of Kaohsiung, while two other gazetted areas off the northern Taiwan are 10nm and 12nm (18.5km and 22.2km) at their closest point to the coast respectively.
This places the edges of the exercise areas within the 12nm limits of a country’s territorial waters as set out under the United Nations’ Law of the Sea, and China is almost certainly underscoring the point that it does not recognise Taiwan’s territorial waters and airspace with this action.
China sees Taiwan as a rogue province and has vowed to reunify the island with the mainland by any means necessary including through the use of force.
It has accused the current Taiwanese government of seeking to inch Taiwan towards independence and the US of covertly supporting such efforts despite the official US position being against it.
While declaring the area as a military exercise area is considered a fair warning for civilian activities to steer clear, there is no doubt that firing live ammunition so close to the shore would pose an increased safety risk to anyone who happens to be in close proximity.
CHANGE IN STATUS QUO
China has also upped the ante in the air, with Taiwan’s defence ministry reporting on Wednesday night that 22 PLA aircraft – 16 Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighters and six Shenyang J-11B interceptors – crossed the unofficial median line along the Taiwan Strait that serves as a dividing line between the two.
The map released by the ministry showing the Chinese jets were on a flight path that pointed roughly towards Taipei before turning back soon after crossing the median line, with the ministry adding that Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force scrambled its own interceptor jets and issued warnings in response.
This was the first time Chinese aircraft have crossed the line since September 2020, when US Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach visited Taiwan.
Taken together, China’s reaction to the Pelosi visit is a significant changing of the status quo, and perhaps an indication China will go a lot further than diplomatic protests and angry public statements when responding to such high-level visits from now on.
However, moving up the escalation ladder is also fraught with risks, not just in a miscalculation but also leaving itself with fewer rungs to climb in the future. This limits its room for manoeuvre in the future and China will likely have to up the ante to instil any psychological or political effects as before.
Indeed, several news reports from Taiwan have suggested that the locals have adopted a blasé view towards the ongoing Chinese military activity around the island, with life going on as usual despite the ongoing rhetorical and figurative fireworks across the Taiwan Strait.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for US-based defence publication Defense News. He is based in Melbourne.