Chinese military winds down Taiwan exercises but tensions remain high in wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit
- Beijing said the war games highlighted its ability to breach Taiwan’s defences and announced a further series of drills near US military bases in Japan
- Diplomatic observers said heightened tensions between the US and China would continue but do not expect things to escalate to the point of conflict
The unprecedented military exercises – launched in response to a visit that China regards as a major breach of its sovereignty – have broken the tacit rules observed by armed forces on both sides of the strait for decades and set precedents that, if repeated, could severely squeeze Taiwan’s defence space.
Beijing did not formally announce an end to its military drills – which it said would last until noon on Sunday – although Taiwan’s transport ministry told airlines to gradually resume flights near the six designated exercise zones after that time, indicating that the military action had stopped.
Taiwan’s defence ministry has declined to confirm that the exercises had finished. Taiwanese media quoted the People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theatre Command as saying exercises had continued as planned around Taiwan’s coastline.
The Eastern Theatre Command on Sunday said “several strategic bomber groups had crossed the Taiwan Strait from the north and the south simultaneously”. In video footage released by the command, an H-6K strategic bomber can be seen escorted by fighter jets approaching an unspecified coastline.
The H-6K is designed for long-range attacks and is capable of attacking carrier battle groups and boasts nuclear strike capability.
The Taiwanese ministry of defence said as of 5pm, it detected 66 flights by PLA warplanes near Taiwan, of which 12 crossed the median line. There were also 14 mainland warships taking part in the Sunday drills.
Before winding down the exercises, the People’s Liberation Army announced it would conduct month-long live-fire drills in the Bohai Sea and south of the Yellow Sea on Saturday. Entry to the area is banned during that time.
These areas are close to the US military bases in Japan that could provide critical support to Taiwan in the event of conflict with the Chinese mainland.
In response to the mainland exercises, the Taiwanese military said it would stage two live-fire artillery drills this week in southern Taiwan to test its combat readiness.
The US 7th Fleet also plans to send more aircraft and warships through the Taiwan Strait in the coming weeks to respond to Beijing’s war games, the American military newspaper Star and Stripes reported.
The USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group was told by the White House last week to remain in the region to “monitor the situation”.
Rear Admiral Michael Donnelly, commander of the carrier strike group, said the navy would not back away from its regular operations in the Western Pacific despite heightened tensions or be “dissuaded, bullied or forced” by rivals like China, the report said.
The 7th Fleet has sent an average of one destroyer a month through the Taiwan Strait this year.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi over the weekend warned Washington not to “stir up a bigger crisis”.
Beijing has suspended military dialogues with the US in protest at Pelosi’s “provocative” visit.
But Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University, said: “Confrontation will [escalate], but a conflict is still unlikely, even as the suspension of military communication has surely made prevention of incidental clashes more difficult,”
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin tried to call his Chinese counterpart last week, but the Chinese side refused to engage, according to Politico.
Koh King Kee, president of the Centre for New Inclusive Asia, a think tank in Malaysia, said neither side wanted a war.
“Strategically, this is not the right time for the US to pick a war with China as it is still mired in the Ukraine war; neither is Beijing in a rush for a military conflict with the US now,” he said.
However, Koh warned that China would not compromise its sovereignty and territorial integrity to avoid an armed conflict.
Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province and has never renounced the use of force to bring it back under its control.
All countries that maintain diplomatic ties with Beijing – including the United States – acknowledge the one-China principle. But Washington opposes any attempt to take the island by force. It also pledges to provide means for the self-governed island to defend itself.
Zhang Junshe, the vice-president of the PLA Naval Research Institute, told state news agency Xinhua that Beijing’s goal of achieving reunification with Taiwan by peaceful means remains unchanged.
“If there is one slight hope of achieving it peacefully, we will make a 100 per cent effort to do that,” Zhang said.
He said most countries supported China’s stance on Taiwan and warned that Beijing is determined to “smash any attempt to separate [Taiwan from the mainland].”
Koh predicted that the PLA would conduct more regular military drills around Taiwan in the future to keep up the pressure on the island.
“Beijing will keep ‘normalising’ its military drills encircling the island, as it can turn such military exercises into real action any time it deems necessary,” Koh noted.
On the diplomatic front, Beijing’s war of words with the US and its allies over Taiwan is set to continue.
The island’s ministry of foreign affairs announced that Lithuanian deputy transport minister Agne Vaiciukeviciute would lead an 11-member delegation on a five-day visit to the island starting on Sunday.
Diplomatic observers believe the visit by the Lithuanians will not trigger the same kind of reaction as Pelosi’s visit, but warned that it could complicate China’s relationship with the European Union.
China announced unspecific sanctions against Pelosi and her family after her visit, and Igor Szpotakowski, head of the research department at the Chinese Law Association in Poland and Yenching Scholar at Peking University, said he expected some sanctions would be imposed on Lithuanian organisations and individuals.
Michele Geraci, former undersecretary of state at the Italian ministry of economic development, said the Lithuanians would face some retaliation, but did not expect there to be any impact on the overall relationship between China and the EU.
But Wang Yiwei, Jean Monnet professor and director of the Centre for European Union Studies at Renmin University, was more pessimistic, saying the Lithuanian visit had “hijacked the China-EU relationship”.
“Lithuania wants to take advantage of the situation by visiting Taiwan. Other countries may also do the same, for example, the United Kingdom. China has to stop that and halt the spread of the Pelosi effect.”