Taiwan is bracing for China’s wrath after welcoming U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most senior U.S. politician to visit the self-ruled island since 1997.
China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and sees Pelosi’s visit as a challenge to its sovereignty and a ploy to contain its rise. It began military action on Thursday that would effectively blockade the U.S. partner just hours after Pelosi left. The Taiwanese defense ministry said the Chinese military fired several ballistic missiles into waters northeast and southwest of Taiwan.
The three-day operations include live-fire drills around Taiwan taking place as close as nine miles to the island’s coast, according to the official Xinhua news agency. The Taiwanese government has called these actions a violation of its territorial waters and international law.
China has often responded to perceived provocations with military drills, but never this close to Taiwan.
The military exercise raised the potential for a maritime standoff between Taiwan and China, potentially pulling in the U.S.
“These are designed to be highly threatening demonstrations of force,” James Lin, assistant professor of international studies at the University of Washington, told VICE World News.
“Their proximity to civilian residential areas are clearly designed to intimidate, and there is always a risk of accidents that makes these exercises dangerous and reckless.”
Before Pelosi’s visit, the U.S. Navy deployed the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and several warships east of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea. China reportedly also moved its two aircraft carriers out of their home ports into the South China Sea. Both countries have called their operations routine.
“What everyone is watching is whether the USS Ronald Reagan would stay in the area until China ends the military exercises,” Wenchi Yu, Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, told VICE World News.
The White House did not answer a reporter’s question in a press briefing on Wednesday on whether the aircraft carrier group left the east coast of Taiwan.
Taiwan’s defense ministry has said it will monitor the drills and take a “non-escalatory” approach.
Analysts have described the Chinese military’s drills as practice for blockading Taiwan in the event of a war. China’s leaders, including President Xi Jinping, have long vowed to bring Taiwan into their fold through peaceful means but have not ruled out using force.
It’s unclear if the U.S. would directly intervene if Taiwan and China come into conflict.
The U.S. dropped a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan after Washington ceased official ties with Taipei to recognize Beijing in 1979. But the countries maintain a robust unofficial relationship, with the U.S. selling Taiwan arms to aid its defense.
Crucially, however, the U.S. has not promised to defend Taiwan in case of an invasion, as it pursues a policy of “strategic ambiguity” to deter China from attacking and Taiwan from declaring formal independence.
“Thinking further ahead, the U.S. will need to reconsider whether ‘strategic ambiguity’ is now past its due date, and to have a clearer signal what are Taiwan and U.S.’s redlines,” Roger Lee Huang, lecturer at the Department of Security Studies & Criminology at Macquarie University, told VICE World News.
Pelosi’s visit was largely welcome in Taiwan, which is increasingly being isolated diplomatically in the shadow of its powerful neighbor. China has leveraged its economic clout to sway countries to cut ties with Taipei. Beijing has also demanded international companies, including U.S. airlines, to stop referring to Taiwan as a separate country.
Lin, of the University of Washington, said the visit gave a morale boost to Taiwan.
“Having this visit, even though it is largely symbolic and performative and doesn’t necessarily make Taiwan safer, can be seen as a small step toward normalization, for Taiwan to conduct a diplomatic practice like any other nation in the world,” Lin said.
Wei-Ting Yen, assistant professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College, said Pelosi sent a strong signal of bipartisan support for Taiwan in defense of democracy, freedom, and human rights.
“It potentially can encourage more like-minded political leaders or elites to normalize visits to Taiwan, opening up more international space for Taiwan in the long run,” Yen told VICE World News.
Apart from the show of force, Beijing is also looking to squeeze Taiwan economically. Shortly after Pelosi landed in Taipei on Tuesday night, China said it would stop exporting natural sand and importing some types of fish and fruit from the island, although the affected products make up just a tiny fraction of trade between Taiwan and China.
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