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Chinese stages show of force near Taiwan for a third day

A soldier participates in an amphibious landing drill during the Han Kuang military exercise, which simulates China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) invading the island, on July 28, 2022 in Pingtung, Taiwan.Annabelle Chih/Photographer: Annabelle Chih/Get

China continued Saturday to project its ire at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan, with its third straight day of military drills that have encroached ever closer to the island and raised concerns about potential conflict.

The Taiwanese defense ministry said Saturday that several batches of Chinese military aircraft and warships had been detected around the Taiwan Strait, with some crossing the informal median line that divides the island from the Chinese mainland. They appeared to be engaged in an exercise simulating an attack on the main island of Taiwan, the ministry said.

Already, China’s show of force, which is expected to run through Sunday, has threatened territory that Taiwan considers its own more directly than any previous exercises had.

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China has launched at least 11 missiles into the waters to the north, south and east of Taiwan, including at least one that flew over the island, though Taiwan said it was at a high altitude that constituted no threat. On Friday, it also deployed fighter jets, bombers, destroyers, drones and escort ships to waters near the island. Several of the zones the Chinese military designated for this week’s exercises are closer to the island than areas announced during the Taiwan Strait crisis in the mid-1990s, which also involved China firing missiles around Taiwan.

Since the exercises began Thursday, at least 49 Chinese military jets have crossed the median line, according to Taiwanese officials.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry said in a statement Saturday that China had “unilaterally created a crisis” by overreacting to Pelosi’s visit.

“The Taiwanese people have the right to befriend the rest of the world, and China has no right to interfere with the rest of the world befriending Taiwan,” the statement said.

The military exercises are the most visible element of the Chinese response to Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, which she had said was intended to show support for the island and its vibrant democracy. Before her arrival Tuesday, China had repeatedly warned that the gesture by Pelosi — the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in 25 years — would provoke “serious consequences.” China claims Taiwan as its own territory, and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has promised an eventual reunification, through force if necessary.

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China also said Friday that it would cancel or suspend talks with the United States on military coordination and climate change, which some analysts said could increase the chances of a miscommunication spiraling into a full-fledged crisis.

At the same time, the United States is looking to shore up its ties with other Asian countries, as a counterweight to China’s regional and global influence. On Saturday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in Manila. In a public exchange, Marcos told Blinken that he did not think Pelosi’s visit had “raised the intensity” of tensions in the region, which he said had already been high — an apparent rebuttal to China’s claims that the United States was responsible for the current frictions.

Fears that China would seek to physically prevent Pelosi’s visit were unrealized. But U.S. officials remain concerned that the exercises, which began less than 24 hours after she left Taiwan, could still escalate, intentionally or accidentally, into more direct conflict.

Chinese officials, who have encouraged swaggering and at times virulent nationalism at home, may feel pressure to show that they are putting on a strong response. Some Chinese social media users have expressed disappointment or embarrassment that the government did not go further to prevent Pelosi’s visit; some made it clear that they had been expecting military action.

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Even if the drills do not directly escalate into a full-blown crisis, they could signal a new pattern of aggression and incursions by the Chinese military. The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, said in an editorial Friday that the work of promoting reunification with Taiwan had “entered a new stage.”

The United States has tried to avoid provoking China further. It has said that it remains committed to the status quo in Taiwan, acknowledging China’s stated claim to the island without recognizing it. The Pentagon ordered the USS Ronald Reagan to “remain on station” in the region, while maintaining some distance from the Taiwan Strait.

But China has made it clear that it regards any criticism of its exercises as an affront. It has summoned several ambassadors after their countries expressed concern about the drills. After some of the Chinese missiles landed Thursday in waters that Japan claims as its own, leading Japan’s prime minister to call for an “immediate halt,” a representative for the Chinese Embassy in Japan told Japan not to “slide into the abyss” of geopolitical confrontation.