China’s military has pressed ahead with its largest ever military drills, targeting Taiwan with what the island’s government called a simulated attack, including further incursions over the median line and drone flights over Taiwan’s outlying islands.
Western pushback on China’s live-fire drills, launched in response to a visit to Taiwan by the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, earlier in the week, also continued, with condemnation from senior US officials and foreign ministers from Australia and Japan.
Beijing vociferously objected to Pelosi’s visit, which it said violated its “one-China principle”, a domestic policy outlining the government’s territorial claim over the democratic and self-ruled Taiwan. Beijing sees Taiwan as a part of China and has vowed to “take it back” one day, and by force if necessary.
Over the weekend, Chinese diplomats continued their campaign to lay the blame on the US and accused Washington of causing chaos in the region.
On Saturday, Taiwan’s ministry of defence said it had observed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planes and ships operating in the Taiwan strait, believing them to be simulating an attack on its main island.
“Multiple batches of Chinese communist planes and ships conducting activities around the Taiwan strait, some of which crossed the median line,” it said, referring to the unofficial border in the waters between China and Taiwan.
On Saturday, Taiwan also scrambled jets to warn away 20 Chinese aircraft, including 14 that crossed the Taiwan strait median line, according to Reuters, citing Taiwan’s defence ministry.
Chinese warships and drones simulated attacks on US and Japanese warships, off Taiwan’s east coast and close to Japanese islands, Reuters reported, citing sources.
Taiwan also said it had fired flares on multiple nights to ward off PLA drones flying over the Kinmen islands, and unidentified aircraft flying over the Matsu islands. The island groups sit a few kilometres from China’s mainland coast.
News about the drills came as Taiwan’s official media outlet, CNA, reported that Ou Yang Li-hsing, the vice-president of the Taiwan defence ministry’s research and development unit, had been found dead in a hotel room after a heart attack. It said there were no signs of intrusion to the 57-year-old’s room and that his family said he had a history of cardiac problems.
The live-fire drills began on Thursday, shortly after Pelosi departed Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, and targeted six large areas of sea surrounding the island, including inside its territorial waters. They also included 11 ballistic missiles fired towards or over the main island of Taiwan, landing in its surrounding seas and in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
In recent days, PLA officials have lauded their drills, claiming they are a demonstration of blockade tactics, which could be imposed on Taiwan for real one day.
Taiwan’s foreign minister on Friday defended Pelosi’s visit as “significant” in raising the profile of Taiwan as a democracy. Joseph Wu told the BBC that Beijing was trying to change the status quo, which Taiwan wanted to maintain.
“Taiwan has no jurisdiction over mainland China and the People’s Republic of China has no jurisdiction over Taiwan. That is the reality,” Wu said, suggesting it was Taipei that invited Pelosi for the visit.
Beijing’s week of retaliation has also targeted the US, with sanctions imposed on Pelosi and her family, and key agreements or cooperations suspended or cancelled, including climate crisis talks and efforts to ensure bilateral military communications.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on Saturday that China should not hold talks “hostage” on important global matters such as the climate crisis, adding to comments from the US special envoy for climate, John Kerry, that it did not punish the US but “it punishes the world”.
Relations between China and the US and its allies have plummeted further over the drills. Analysts worry that the deteriorating relations could further wreak havoc on the dwindling global economy.
In a joint statement after meeting on the margins of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers’ gathering, Blinken and the foreign ministers of Australia and Japan, Penny Wong and Yoshimasa Hayashi, urged China to immediately cease the exercises and condemned the use of ballistic missiles.
The senior officials “expressed their concern about the People’s Republic of China’s recent actions that gravely affect international peace and stability, including the use of large-scale military exercises”.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, walked out of a plenary session in Cambodia just as Hayashi spoke on Friday. Wang also called a rare news conference late on Friday, where he accused Blinken of spreading misinformation.
The drills around Taiwan are scheduled to mostly finish on Sunday, but further exercises in the Yellow Sea have been announced beginning next week.
Taiwan also reported that it had been hit by cyber-attacks this week, including the websites of the president’s office and the ministries of foreign affairs and defence, as well as display screens in 7-Eleven stores and some train stations.
Wu Min-hsuan, the head of the Taiwan-based cybermonitoring group Doublethink Labs, said there used to be serious concerns over Chinese government cyberwarfare but that this week’s attacks were mild and highlighted weak digital links that Taiwan needed to address.
“They want to create an image that says your security is weak and we are powerful,” he said.
Like the world’s media, people in Taiwan are following the events closely. But Li Ya Chen, a 35-year-old journalist who spent two years in Shanghai between 2017 and 2019, said despite Beijing’s antagonistic response, people in Taiwan were “not overly worried”.
“Pelosi’s visit last week showed that ultimately Taiwan wants good relations with the US, and her trip could help elevate Taiwan’s international support. We are already used to Beijing’s fury, and we are well aware of the danger,” she said.
“The world thinks Taiwan is now the most dangerous place on Earth, but for most of us here, life goes on.”
Additional reporting by Rebecca Ratcliffe and agencies