China sent more warships and aircraft into waters and airspace near Taiwan today, defying international criticism of its military exercises and demonstrating the country’s confidence, as well as its growing appetite for confrontation.
In addition to its muscle flexing, China also threw several diplomatic punches aimed at laying out the global cost of what it considers brazen challenges to its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan, a democratically ruled island. Beijing pulled the plug on planned meetings with the United States and summoned European diplomats in the Chinese capital. A day earlier, China’s foreign minister walked out of a dinner at a regional forum in protest.
The moves signaled Beijing’s willingness to push back at the United States and its allies militarily, diplomatically and economically to signal its fury over U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week. Relations between China and the United States, already at a low before the visit, are now in a fierce downward spiral. The two global powers are staking out ideologically driven stances that make compromise challenging, heading into a deep chill in relations that could reshape the regional geopolitical landscape and have ramifications farther afield.
China claims Taiwan, a self-governing democracy off its southern coast, as its own territory. It regards any visit by a U.S. politician as an affront, let alone one by Pelosi, the highest-ranking U.S. official to go there since 1997.
During her visit to Taiwan this week, Pelosi met with Taiwan’s president, lawmakers and human rights activists, hailing the island’s commitment to democracy. She kept up her criticism of Beijing today, saying in Tokyo that China “may try to keep Taiwan from visiting or participating in other places but they will not isolate Taiwan.”
After the visit, Beijing said it would impose unspecified sanctions against Pelosi and her family members. It also said it canceled or suspended several exchanges between the two countries aimed at improving communication between the militaries and building cooperation on issues such as international crime, climate change and drug control.
In doing so, it struck directly at the Biden administration’s strategy of confronting China on points of dispute, such as Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, while trying to collaborate with it to tackle global threats such as climate change.
Beijing has long found it hard to reconcile Washington’s approach of simultaneous strategic cooperation and competition, because it sees cooperation as giving Washington leverage, said Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group.
“In canceling all these exchanges, though, Beijing is really pulling away the last strings in an already threadbare relationship,” Hsiao said. “It shows that there is little left in the bilateral relationship that Beijing can use to register its protests over Taiwan.”
The end of defense exchanges was most worrisome, experts said, leaving an opening for real conflict and dangerous interactions between the Chinese and U.S. militaries in the South China Sea and around the region.
The concern about the potential consequences of any such accidental — or intentional — conflict was clear today. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan called on China to halt its military exercises after meeting in Tokyo with Pelosi, whose regional tour has included stops in several countries allied with the United States.
China fired five missiles Thursday that landed in waters claimed by Japan for its exclusive economic use. Kishida said the drills were having “a serious impact on the peace and stability of the region and the world,” Kyodo News reported.
China’s Eastern Theater Command today said it deployed fighter jets, bombers and other aircraft to areas around Taiwan to carry out combat exercises. The command’s navy dispatched more than 10 destroyers and escort ships to the waters near Taiwan, approaching from different directions to carry out what state media described as “containment and control operations.”
Taiwan’s defense ministry said that China’s People’s Liberation Army was conducting “frequent and intensive activities” near Taiwan today, and that Chinese aircraft and ships had crossed the informal median line in the Taiwan Strait, which separates the island from the Chinese mainland.
There were no immediate reports of missiles fired today, the second day of the exercises, which are scheduled to end Sunday. On Thursday, at least 11 Chinese missiles landed in waters to the north, south and east of Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army of China said they had “all precisely hit their targets.”
Besides demonstrating Beijing’s displeasure with her visit, the drills — which China has said would be held in six zones encircling Taiwan — appear to have been designed as a trial run for sealing off the island as part of a potential invasion. China’s leaders, including the current one, Xi Jinping, have long said that Taiwan must eventually be brought under Beijing’s control, by force if necessary.
Taiwan has faced such threats for decades, and an uneasy sense of normalcy prevailed today, according to Jason Hsu, a former lawmaker with the opposition Kuomintang. But Hsu said that many people had a false sense of security.
“We are talking about missiles from China across the sky, and everyone is sleeping like a log,” he said.
Business leaders in Taiwan, whose largest trading partner is China, have expressed concern about the potential for economic damage as tensions rise. Nine business groups, including the influential Chinese National Federation of Industries, issued a joint statement on the eve of the drills, noting the economic repercussions of the war in Ukraine and appealing to “both sides of the strait not to misjudge the situation.”
Criticism of China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait by the United States and its allies prompted Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, to walk out of a gala dinner in Cambodia’s capital Thursday night, moments before diplomats attending a regional conference were to be seated. Japan’s foreign minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, had just issued a formal protest to China when Wang left.
Earlier in the day, Wang had accused the United States of instigating the situation around Taiwan.
“It is the United States that stirred up the trouble, it is the United States that created the crisis, and it is also the United States that kept escalating tensions,” Wang told foreign ministers attending the conference.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking today to reporters at the end of the meeting in Cambodia, described the Chinese military exercises as a “significant escalation” and having “no justification.”
The Chinese drills have put the United States in a delicate position. While the Pentagon wants to project strength in the region, it is also sensitive to the risk that a military miscalculation near the island could set off an unintended escalation.
The Biden administration is intent on avoiding an incident like the 2001 collision between a U.S. P-3 intelligence plane and a Chinese fighter jet over waters off China’s southern coast. The U.S. plane made a forced landing on Hainan island, a southern province of China, and more than 20 crew members were taken captive for 11 days.
John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that the U.S. military had ordered the USS Ronald Reagan to “remain on station” in the region, but some distance from the entrance to the Taiwan Strait. That represents a more cautious move than one made during a crisis over Taiwan in 1996, when President Bill Clinton moved aircraft carriers closer to the strait.
The United States will resume “standard air and maritime transits through the Taiwan Strait in the next few weeks,” Kirby added, an indication that the White House wants the Chinese exercises to end first.
In Washington, former CIA analyst John Culver said Thursday at a meeting of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research group, that a new low had been reached between the United States and China.
“We’re in a new era,” said Culver, who was the national intelligence officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council from 2015 to 2018. “It’s not the mid-’90s anymore. The context is entirely different.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.