BEIJING — Taiwan’s capital staged air raid drills Monday and its military mobilized for routine defense exercises, coinciding with concerns over a forceful Chinese response to a possible visit to the island by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
While there was no direct link between China’s renewed threats and Taiwan’s defensive moves, they underscore the possibility of a renewed crisis in the Taiwan Strait, considered a potential hotspot for conflict that could envelop the entire region.
In Taipei, air raid sirens were heard. The military was hosting its multi-day Han Kuang drills. These included joint sea and air exercises as well as the mobilization and deployment of troops and tanks.
Police directed subway commuters randomly to shelters in Taipei when the siren went off just after noon. Most departed after about 15 minutes.
Pelosi has not confirmed when, or even if, she will visit, but President Joe Biden last week told reporters that U.S. military officials believed such a trip was “not a good idea.” Administration officials are believed to be critical of a possible trip, both for the problematic timing and the lack of coordination with the White House.
China’s authoritarian ruling Communist Party considers democratic, self-ruling Taiwan its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary, and regularly advertises that threat by staging military exercises and flying warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone or across the center line of the 180-kilometer (100-mile) -wide Taiwan Strait.
Beijing says those actions are aimed at deterring advocates of the island’s formal independence and foreign allies—principally the U.S.—from interfering, more than 70 years after the sides split amid civil war. Surveys routinely show that Taiwan’s 23 million people reject China’s assertions that the island is a Chinese province that has strayed and must be brought under Beijing’s control.
Pelosi has long been an outspoken critic of Beijing and is now second to the White House. China views her as an agent for Biden, and demands that members of Congress adhere to previous administrations’ commitments.
Taiwan is one of the few topics that has broad bipartisan support within Congress and the Administration. Biden stated earlier in the year that the U.S. would defend Taiwan against attack.
U.S. law requires Washington provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself and treat all threats to the island as matters of “grave concern,” but remains ambiguous on whether it would commit forces in response to an attack from China.
Continue reading: Taiwan’s Civilian Soldiers Worry They Aren’t Prepared
Though the sides lack formal diplomatic ties, the U.S. is Taiwan’s chief provider of outside defense assistance and political support, in a reflection of its desire to limit China’s growing influence and maintain a robust American presence in the Western Pacific.
On Sunday, U.S. General Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) visited Indonesia and stated that the Chinese army has grown significantly more dangerous and aggressive over the last five years.
Milley’s Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, told him in a call earlier this month that Beijing had “no room for compromise” on issues such as Taiwan.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it will take “resolute and strong measures,” but has not specified actions it would take in response to a visit to Taiwan by Pelosi, who would be the highest-ranking elected official to visit Taiwan since 1997. Speculation has centered on a new round of threatening military exercises or even an attempt to prevent Pelosi’s plane from landing by declaring a no-fly zone over Taiwan.
“If the U.S. is determined to make (a visit) happen, they know China will take unprecedented tough measures and the U.S. must make military preparations,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Beijing’s Renmin University.
“Expect huffing and puffing, maybe some fire-breathing, military posturing, and perhaps economic punishment of Taiwan,” said Michael Mazza, a defense and China expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Pelosi visiting the House of Representatives, which may take place in early August, will be very sensitive because it depends on many factors. Among them is the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army—the military branch of the ruling Communist Party—which falls on Aug. 1, a date used to stoke nationalism and rally the troops.
Hardline nationalist elements within the Party ranks are also putting pressure on Chinese leaders.
That harkens back to the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995 and 1996, when China held exercises and launched missiles into waters north and south of the island in response to a U.S. visit by the island’s then-president Lee Teng-hui. The U.S. responded by dispatching two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area, a move that helped spur China’s massive military upgrading in the years since that has radically changed the balance of power in Asia.
Xi is meanwhile seeking a third five-year term as party leader at a congress later this year and needs to show he is in charge amid a slowing economy and a public backlash against his “zero-COVID” policy.
According to Bonnie Glaser (director of the Asia Program, German Marshall Fund), the overall situation seems more dire than 1995-1996.
“If the Chinese want to demonstrate resolve they have many ways to do so,” Glaser said.
China doesn’t want to create a “crisis for crisis’ sake,” but could try to use the possibility of a Pelosi visit to advance its agenda, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military affairs and foreign policy at Stanford University.
China might take the opportunity to test out capabilities through a large-scale amphibious exercise, which it would justify as a response to an “aggressive move” by the U.S., Mastro said.
“So I think they’ll use it as an opportunity to make advances that could be problematic, but (which) they wanted to do anyway regardless of the Pelosi visit,” she said.
Huizhong Wu, an Associated Press journalist from Taipei (Taiwan), contributed to the report.
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