Taiwan committed to defending status quo as China begins military exercises around island

A newspaper report showing map locations where Chinese People's Liberation Army will conduct military exercises, on Aug 3, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI (REUTERS) - Suspected drones flew over outlying Taiwanese islands and hackers attacked its defence ministry website, authorities in Taipei said on Thursday, a day (Aug 4) after a visit by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi that outraged China.

Taiwan has been on alert as China conducts a series of military exercises in response to a visit to the island this week by Pelosi.

Some of the drills were to take place within the island’s 12-nautical-mile sea and air territory, according to the defence ministry in Taipei.

That has never happened before and a senior ministry official described the potential move as “amounting to a sea and air blockade of Taiwan”.

Taiwan’s ruling party said on Thursday that the Chinese military drills have triggered regional tensions and are illegitimate.

China is conducting drills on the busiest international waterways and aviation routes and that is irresponsible unilateral behaviour, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party said.

Taiwan will strengthen self-defence capabilities and closely coordinate with the United States and like-minded countries, foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou told a news conference on Thursday, when asked about China’s planned military drills.

South-east Asian foreign ministers warned on Thursday that the growing standoff over Taiwan could spark “open conflicts”.

Ministers from the 10-member Asean issued a joint statement saying the situation “could destabilise the region and eventually could lead to miscalculation, serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers”.

China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, 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,” the Beijing-based Taiwan Affairs Office said.

China’s Xinhua news agency has said the exercises, involving live fire drills, will take place in six areas surrounding Taiwan.

State media reported that the drills started at noon (0400 GMT).

On Wednesday night, just hours after Pelosi left for South Korea, unidentified aircraft, probably drones, had flown above the area of the Kinmen islands, Taiwan’s defence ministry said.

Major General Chang Zone-sung of the Army’s Kinmen Defence Command told Reuters that the Chinese drones came in a pair and flew into the Kinmen area twice on Wednesday night, at around 9pm and 10pm.

“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.

The heavily fortified Kinmen islands are just off the southeastern coast of China, near the city of Xiamen.

“We have a standard operating procedure. We will react if they come in,” Mr Chang said, adding that the alert level there remained “normal”.

He said he believed the drones were intended to gather intelligence on Taiwan’s security deployment in its outlying islands.

Last week, Taiwan’s military fired flares to warn away a drone that “glanced” at its Matsu archipelago off the coast of China’s Fujian province and was possibly probing its defences, Taiwan’s defence ministry said.

The first Taiwan Strait crisis broke out in 1954 when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists placed thousands of troops on the Taiwan-ruled Kinmen and Matsu islands.

China, then led by Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, responded with artillery bombardments of the islands.

Beijing's Communist forces would intermittently shell Kinmen until a stalemate in 1979, in attempts to dislodge the Nationalist forces there.

Taiwan's defence ministry also said on Thursday that its website suffered cyber attacks and went offline temporarily, adding it was working closely with other authorities to enhance cyber security as tensions with China rise.

Earlier this week, several government websites, including the presidential office, were subject to overseas cyber attacks, some of which authorities said were launched by China and Russia.

Chinese military helicopters fly past Pingtan island, one of mainland China's closest point from Taiwan, on Aug 4, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The government urged companies to enhance their cybersecurity in the coming days as authorities were seeing a record number of attacks on their websites.

Pelosi, the highest-level US 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 US ambassador in Beijing and halted several agricultural imports from Taiwan.

Security in the area around the US Embassy in Beijing remained unusually tight on Thursday as it has been throughout this week.

Although Chinese social media users have vented fury on Pelosi, there were no signs of significant protests or calls to boycott US products.

After Pelosi's departure on Wednesday, Taiwan's defence ministry announced that 27 Chinese warplanes had entered the island's air defence identification zone (ADIZ).

Over the last two years, Beijing has ramped up military incursions into Taiwan's ADIZ - which is not the same as the island's territorial airspace, but includes a far greater area.

The ministry published a map that showed 16 Su-30s and 6 J-11s had crossed the so-called "median line" of the Taiwan Strait - an unofficial boundary in the narrow waterway, which separates the island from the mainland and straddles vital shipping lanes.

The latest Chinese mission included 16 Chinese Su-30 fighters and 11 other jets, Taiwan's defence ministry said. PHOTO: MONDEFENSE/TWITTER

Early Wednesday, state broadcaster China Central Television said the country had launched joint navy and air force exercises around Taiwan.

The operations will include “regular-guided fire testing in the eastern waters” – or missiles – off Taiwan, the PLA said. 

China sent 21 warplanes into Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ on Tuesday compared to four the day before, according to the island’s defence ministry. The daily record is 56 PLA planes on Oct 4, which coincided with nearby US-led military exercises.

Beijing on Tuesday announced six exclusion zones encircling Taiwan to facilitate live-fire military drills from Thursday to Sunday, with some of the areas crossing into the island’s territorial waters.

The operations include “long-range live firing in the Taiwan Strait” and “regular-guided fire testing in the eastern waters” off Taiwan from Tuesday evening, the PLA said. 

“This action is targeted at the US’ shocking recent major escalation on the Taiwan issue, and serves as a serious warning to Taiwanese independence forces or those seeking independence,” a spokesperson for the Eastern Theatre Command, said in a statement.

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Pelosi arrived with a congressional delegation on her unannounced but closely watched visit late on Tuesday, defying China’s repeated warnings and amid sharply deteriorating US-Chinese relations.

“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.” 

A TV screen shows a news reports of a People’s Liberation Army warship, in a shopping mall in Hong Kong, on Aug 3, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The United States and the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven nations warned China against using the visit as a pretext for military action against Taiwan.

“Sadly, Taiwan has been prevented from participating in global meetings, most recently the World Health Organisation, because of objections by the Chinese Communist Party,” Pelosi said in statement issued after her departure.

“While they may prevent Taiwan from sending its leaders to global forums, they cannot prevent world leaders or anyone from travelling to Taiwan to pay respect to its flourishing democracy, to highlight its many successes and to reaffirm our commitment to continued collaboration,” she added.

The planned drills would be the most serious show of force by China around Taiwan since at least 1995, when Beijing test-fired missiles into the sea near the island.

That move was part of China’s protests against then US President Bill Clinton’s decision to let Taiwan’s first democratically elected president Lee Teng-hui visit the US. 

Back then, China also declared exclusion zones around target areas during the tests, disrupting shipping and air traffic.

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