At least 11 Chinese missiles struck seas north, south, and east of Taiwan on Thursday, less than 24 hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi celebrated the island as a bulwark of democracy next to autocratic China. The People’s Liberation Army declared that its missiles “all precisely hit their targets,” even as Japan said five landed in its waters.
The Chinese military called the exercises a prelude to a bigger show of force intended to punish the island for a visit by Pelosi that challenged Beijing’s claims to Taiwan. The drills, pushing ever closer to Taiwan and expected to run 72 hours, will also give Chinese forces valuable practice should they one day be ordered to encircle and attack the island.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has said he hopes to eventually unify Taiwan and China through peaceful steps, as part of his vision for a “rejuvenated” and powerful nation. But like his predecessors, he has not ruled out force, and China’s military buildup has reached a point where some commanders and analysts think an invasion is an increasingly plausible, though still highly risky, scenario.
Even if imminent conflict is unlikely, the exercises are putting the region on edge. And tensions could dangerously escalate, especially if something goes wrong — with the missiles landing near Japan seen as a message that China could hit the US forces stationed there and intended as warning to the government in Tokyo of the cost of its American alliance.
The Japanese government on Thursday said five Chinese ballistic missiles had fallen into its exclusive economic zone, the first time any had landed in those waters. The zone is outside of the country’s territorial waters, where international ships can pass freely.
Another missile, the government said, landed 50 miles northwest of Yonaguni, a small island at Japan’s southernmost tip and just a short distance from Taiwan. The missile did not land in Japan’s economic zone.
Japan lodged a protest with the Chinese government. “This is a grave issue that concerns our national security and the safety of the people,” said Japan’s defense minister, Nobuo Kishi.
On Wednesday, before the missiles landed, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, told reporters that Beijing did not recognize Japan’s zone.
“Since China and Japan have not demarcated a boundary in the relevant waters, China does not accept the notion of a so-called ‘Japanese exclusive economic zone,’” Hua said in answer to a question about whether China’s military drill would impinge on those waters.
The six areas for China’s exercises were chosen for their importance in a potential campaign to seal off Taiwan and repel foreign intervention, Major General Meng Xiangqing, a professor of strategy at the National Defense University in Beijing, said in an interview on Chinese television.
One zone covers the narrowest part of the Taiwan Strait. Others could be used to block a major port or attack three of Taiwan’s main military bases. One facing southern Taiwan “creates conditions to bolt the door and beat the dog,” he said, using a Chinese saying that refers to blocking an enemy’s escape route. He signaled that a bigger show of force using live ammunition was on the way.
China’s main state-run television network, CCTV, stated one of the missiles flew over Taiwan, marking another escalation of Chinese pressure on the island and risking serious miscalculation. In response to a question on whether Chinese missiles crossed Taipei, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said the path was “beyond the atmosphere” and harmless to land.
Still, Meng said the path was a first for China’s military.
“You all can wait and see,” Meng said of the exercises. “This is the first time that the military will hold a joint military operation around all of Taiwan island,” he said. “It should be said that although this is an exercise resembling actual combat, it can at any time turn into real combat.”
The United States has been encouraging regional allies to rally around Taiwan and has sped up efforts to improve the island’s defensive capabilities.
Current and former Pentagon officials and military commanders said China’s missile firings conducted from areas north, south, and east of Taiwan served both broad strategic purposes and specific operational goals.
The activity farthest east, they said, demonstrated China’s ability to cover the eastern approaches to Taiwan. “This has specific implications to any nation that would consider coming to the defense of Taiwan if force was used to reunify with PRC,” said Admiral Scott H. Swift, a former US Pacific Fleet commander, referring to China.
The missile launches in the northeast, toward Japan, were designed specifically to send a message to Japan, the United States, and Taiwan “based on the sensitivity to those waters to each,” the admiral said.
And the activity in the southeast demonstrates China’s ability to disrupt maritime traffic in the Luzon Straits, Swift said, “a broad message to the international audience and specifically to the US and Philippines as well as those that would consider coming to the defense of Taiwan.”
Finally, the exercise area in the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the ability to control maritime traffic in a crucial waterway, he said.
In an effort to avoid further stoking the growing tensions in the region, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin postponed a routine intercontinental ballistic missile test, a Pentagon official said.
A US official said the delay, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, could last around 10 days. A delay that short is unlikely to affect military readiness but gives the Biden administration an opportunity to say it is making an effort to lower tensions with China.
The United States took a similar step in March when it delayed a missile launch amid simmering tensions with Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.
The Pentagon’s decision drew sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress.
“How long does the administration intend to allow Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to dictate our missile-test schedule?” said Senator Tom Cotton, Republican from Arkansas.
It remains unclear how close Chinese forces will come to Taiwan during the rest of the exercises, which are scheduled to end Sunday.
In one possible sign of what to expect, China’s Eastern Theater Command, which encompasses Taiwan, said it was mobilizing more than 100 fighter planes, bombers, and other aircraft, as well as more than 10 destroyers and frigates, to “carry out joint closure and control operations.”
Twenty-two Chinese military aircraft briefly crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, an informal boundary that Chinese planes have crossed only infrequently, the Taiwanese defense ministry said.
The Chinese military could also test Taiwan’s responses by firing into the territorial waters directly off its coast. Three of the exercise zones have corners jutting into those waters.
“It signals that, since Taiwan is part of China, it doesn’t get a 12-nautical-mile zone,” said William Overholt, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, referring to the sea perimeter by which Taiwan defines its territorial waters. “Taiwan either has to defend its zone like an independent country or cave.”
One of the designated exercise zones lies off the eastern coast of Taiwan, at the farthest point from the Chinese mainland. When China held menacing military exercises off Taiwan during a crisis 25 years ago, the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, did not go that far.
“It’s an intentional message meant to highlight the PLA’s heightened capacity to project power farther from the Chinese mainland, and it’s a visible signal that China can surround the island,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesperson, suggested Thursday that China had overreacted to Pelosi’s visit, and that it was up to Beijing to stop escalating tensions.
“I would submit to you that they could come down very easily just by having China stop these very aggressive military drills, flying in missiles around the Taiwan Strait,” Kirby said.