Experts also suggest the announcement of the drills shortly after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taipei on Tuesday was no snap reaction to her controversial visit – rather, the exercises are part of a relentless, years-long plan to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control.
Pelosi’s trip to the island – a democracy of 24 million that the Chinese Communist Party regards as its territory despite having never controlled it – has merely thrust the issue of Taiwan into news headlines, analysts said.
“That’s what Nancy Pelosi really accomplished, raising global awareness of China’s sustained military coercion campaign against Taiwan that’s been going on for more than a decade,” said Drew Thompson, visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
“They do this every year,” Thompson said of the Chinese exercises. “The difference this year is that we’re paying attention.”
Reaction in Taipei, Tokyo and Washington
The government in Taipei is certainly on alert, announcing Friday that multiple Chinese warships and jets had crossed the median line – the midway point between the mainland and Taiwan that Beijing says it does not recognize but usually respects.
After China sent ballistic missiles over the island Thursday, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen vowed to “firmly defend our sovereignty and national security, and stick to the line of defense of democracy and freedom.”
Those missiles got the attention of Japan, too. Five of them landed inside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, an area of the ocean where a country enjoys special rights to resources like fishing and mining under the seabed.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the Chinese drills were “a serious issue concerning the security of our country and its people.” He called for an immediate halt to them and said Japan would work with its closest ally, the United States, “to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at the ASEAN-US Ministerial meeting in Cambodia, said, “I hope very much that Beijing will not manufacture a crisis or seek a pretense to increase its aggressive military action.”
But in Washington, the official line was that Beijing’s actions came as no surprise.
“We anticipated that China might take steps like this – in fact, I described them for you in quite some detail just the other day,” John Kirby, a spokesperson for the US National Security Council, told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “We also expect that these actions will continue and that the Chinese will continue to react in the coming days.”
Visiting with Kishida on Friday, Pelosi said Beijing was trying to “isolate” Taiwan.
China’s exercises were designed to practice doing exactly that, said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii.
“China (is showing) it can bombard Taiwan with missiles and isolate it from outside support and affect air and maritime trade through the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan,” Schuster said.
That’s long been Beijing’s plan, and this week’s exercises are just the manifestation of at least months of planning and years of policy, the experts said.
“An exercise of this size, scope and complexity cannot be planned and the forces prepared in two weeks,” Schuster said, referring to the period following rumors of Pelosi’s trip to the island.
He said the outlines of the Chinese military exercises were likely decided a year ago and most of the actions set by April.
Parts of the drills, like the multiple ballistic missile launches, could have been added in the past few weeks as the logistics of those are not as complicated as say, setting up a naval blockade, which Beijing said was one of its practice points for the exercises.
Drills ‘to intimidate the US and Japan’
Schuster also noted that the exercises are larger than those China has organized in previous years.
“This expanded exercise activity has a third purpose – to intimidate the US and Japan – both of which have indicated their support for Taiwan,” Schuster said.
“If you look at the rhetoric from January to April, (Chinese President Xi Jinping) and company were ramping up criticism of the US and Japan, the latter over recent statements of support for Taiwan and its increased defense spending.”
Japan’s 2022 Defense White Paper, an annual look at its security policy published in late July, called out Beijing in no uncertain terms.
“China continues to unilaterally change or attempt to change the status quo by coercion in the East China Sea and South China Sea,” it says. “Furthermore, China has made clear that it would not hesitate to unify Taiwan by force, further increasing tensions in the region.”
In a virtual speech to a Taiwanese think tank last December, the late former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said an armed invasion of Taiwan would be a grave danger to Japan.
“People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping in particular, should never have a misunderstanding in recognizing this,” Abe said.