China began three days of military exercises around Taiwan on Saturday in what it called a “stern warning,” after the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, met earlier in the week with Speaker Kevin McCarthy, in a show of Taiwanese-U.S. solidarity.
The People’s Liberation Army said it was holding air and sea “combat readiness” patrols and drills on all four sides of Taiwan, including the strait between the island and China, in what appeared to be a concerted burst of retaliation over that meeting, in California on Wednesday.
The authorities also announced a live-fire exercise on waters near Pingtan, an island just off the Chinese coast facing Taiwan. Additionally, Taiwan’s defense ministry said that on Saturday morning China sent 42 military aircraft into the skies around the island, including 29 that crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, an informal boundary between the two sides. That was a jump from the usual number of such sorties.
“This is a stern warning against the collusion and provocations of the ‘Taiwanese independence’ separatist forces and external forces,” Col. Shi Yi said in a statement announcing the sea and air drills. He was speaking on behalf of the Chinese military’s Eastern Theater Command, which oversees the region encompassing Taiwan.
China asserts that Taiwan, a democracy of 23 million people, is part of its territory and must accept eventual unification, and has threatened to use armed force if hopes for peaceful unification are entirely lost. Beijing has accused Ms. Tsai, who has rejected China’s preconditions for talks, of pursuing independence for Taiwan, and Colonel Shi said the exercises were “necessary to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said on Saturday that Beijing should not “misjudge the situation, escalate tensions in the Taiwan Strait and in the region and damage cross-strait relations.”
China’s display of military force had echoes of August, when the previous speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taipei and met Ms. Tsai in a show of solidarity. But China’s response this time appeared — initially, at least — to be more limited than the one after Ms. Pelosi’s visit. Last year, Beijing fired missiles into waters around Taiwan and held days of exercises simulating a blockade of the island.
“This, of course, is very clearly a response to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting,” Shu Hsiao-huang, a researcher at the Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a government-funded body in Taipei, said of China’s latest military activities around Taiwan.
“It looks like they will not be as intense as last year, but still they’ll be stronger than usual,” he said. “Of course, the possibility of additional actions can’t be excluded, but I’d guess that they will not go beyond this scope.”
Ms. Tsai’s meeting with Mr. McCarthy was the highest-level political reception that a Taiwanese president has received in the United States since Washington shifted diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
Since then, Taiwanese leaders have visited the United States only on informal transit stops, and Ms. Tsai has made such visits in the past with relatively little reaction from China. But Beijing — angered over Taiwan’s increasingly warm relations with Washington — has become more vociferously opposed to any meetings between Ms. Tsai and foreign politicians, especially senior American figures.
“The Taiwan issue is the most important, most core, and most sensitive issue in the China-U.S. relationship,” a commentary in the Liberation Army Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese military, said on Saturday. It said that for Ms. Tsai and Mr. McCarthy to “meet in any form or for any excuse amounts to an upgrade in U.S.-Taiwan contacts and is a major political provocation to China.”
But China appears to be trying to calibrate its response to Ms. Tsai’s meetings in the United States with Mr. McCarthy, with an eye on the reverberations in Taiwan and internationally.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has been trying to stabilize relations with Western countries, especially in Europe. The People’s Liberation Army began its exercises only after the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and a former Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou, had finished their visits to China. Mr. Ma’s Nationalist Party generally favors closer ties with China.
“I think it’s status quo in terms of what we probably expected,” Representative Ami Bera, Democrat of California, said of China’s actions, speaking in an interview Saturday while visiting Taiwan as part of a congressional delegation.
In responding to Ms. Tsai’s meeting with Mr. McCarthy, Beijing also has an eye on Taiwan’s presidential election in January, when Chinese leaders hope that a Nationalist candidate can prevail over a contender from Ms. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, experts have said. (After two terms in office, she must step down next year.) An intense Chinese show of force could hamper Nationalist efforts to make its case to voters, said Lev Nachman, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taipei who studies electoral attitudes in Taiwan.
“Unless they really pull out the stops, I don’t think it will sway electoral trends,” he said of China’s military exercises. “But if they did pull out all the stops, then this issue of cross-strait relations and China’s threats would be front and center.”
China’s latest drills are also part of its long-term effort to convince Taiwanese people that unification under Beijing is inevitable, and to warn them that steps toward formal independence could lead to war.
The Chinese military Eastern Theater Command said that the exercises would involve frigates, missile-launching boats, fighter jets, bombers and other weaponry. Their focus was to hone skills in “seizing sea, air and information dominance,” the Eastern Theater Command said on Weibo, a Chinese social media service. Its announcement was accompanied by a video, apparently shot earlier and set to stirring music, showing Chinese troops, naval ships and warplanes scrambling into action.
“The newly announced exercises are once again intended to show that the Chinese military can project power around the island of Taiwan,” said Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who has monitored China’s response to Ms. Tsai’s trip abroad.
Despite Ms. Tsai’s efforts to limit her public activities in the United States and Washington’s attempts to encourage restraint from China, Mr. Hart said, “Beijing is nevertheless trying to exploit this as an opportunity to punish Taiwan and the United States and to try to shift cross-strait dynamics in its favor.”
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