Massive Chinese military drills break decades-old tacit rules with Taiwan

China has broken a decades-long tacit understanding with its military drills near Taiwan.
PHOTO: Weibo

Beijing broke the tacit rules observed for decades by armed forces on both sides of the Taiwan Strait on Thursday (Aug 4), the first day of its unprecedented military drills.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) fired dozens of ballistic missiles directly over Taiwan, sent warplanes and vessels across the median line that divides the strait, flew drones over Taiwanese airspace and deployed at least one aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine in a simulated blockade of what it regards as a breakaway province.

And it was just the start of three days of military drills encircling Taiwan that Beijing is conducting in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to the island on Wednesday.

The US does not recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state and acknowledges the one-China principle, but it opposes any attempt to take the island by force. China sees the visit by Pelosi - the second in line to the US presidency - as a provocation after repeated warnings against the trip.

Unlike previous military exercises that were mainly symbolic, the drills this time were closer to actual combat and set many precedents designed to erode Taiwan's strategic defence space, military analysts said.

"The tacit agreements [between the two militaries] have been broken. This time, the PLA aims to push the boundaries both in weapon systems and actual tactics," said Song Zhongping, a former Chinese military instructor.

The median line of the Taiwan Strait separates mainland China and Taiwan and was drawn by the US in 1955 in the aftermath of the bitter Chinese civil war, with Washington pressuring both sides to abide by an unspoken agreement not to cross it.

On Wednesday, PLA aircraft and ships crossed that line.

The PLA also took the unprecedented steps of firing missiles directly over the island and sending military drones over Taiwanese airspace.

All these incursions could set a precedent and, if repeated, could put the Taiwanese defence forces on the back foot and significantly reduce their time for preparation. It would also increase the risk of an accidental first shot fired in the game of nerves.

PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Just before the exercises started, mainland military drones were spotted over the heavily fortified Quemoy Islands, also known as the Kinmen. Taiwanese troops fired flares to warn them off.

The PLA followed up in the afternoon by launching at least 11 Dongfeng series missiles into waters north, south and east of the island - the first time mainland missiles had flown over the island, according to the Taiwanese defence ministry.

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of Canada-based Kanwa Asian Defence, said one of the missiles was a DF-15B, a ballistic missile with a range of up to 800km.

The Chinese military also fired rounds of rockets into waters around Taiwan.

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The PLA Eastern Theatre Command said it conducted "precision strikes" in the designated areas.

"All the missiles hit the target accurately, testing the precision strike and area denial capabilities. The entire live ammunition launch training mission has been successfully completed, and the relevant sea and airspace controls have been lifted," it said.

Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan's Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, said the missiles and rockets were part of a "cognitive warfare" strategy designed to strike fear and panic.

Lu said that while Taiwan's armed forces could track these missiles, there was little they could do about them because of their high-altitude trajectory.

"It's a cognitive warfare strategy to cause panic in Taiwan. You can see the danger, but you cannot do anything to stop it," Lu said.

The PLA Eastern Theatre Command also said it sent more than 100 warplanes, including fighter jets and bombers, on various missions during the day. According to footage from mainland state broadcaster CCTV, the PLA dispatched its most advanced stealth fighter, the J-20, and the newly introduced aerial oil tanker, the Y-20U.

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Taiwan's air force scrambled Mirage 2000 and F-5 fighter jets to monitor the situation, local media reported.

In addition, more than 10 destroyers were deployed around Taiwan, including the Type 055, considered to be the most powerful warship in Asia.

Citing an expert affiliated with the PLA, mainland newspaper Global Times said an aircraft carrier strike group with "at least one nuclear submarine" had also been deployed - another apparent first.

The PLA Navy operates two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong. Both left their home bases shortly before Pelosi arrived in Taiwan. It is not clear whether the carriers were in the strike group.

The massive manoeuvres, which will continue until noon on Sunday, cover six designated areas surrounding the island and have caused huge disruptions to air and maritime traffic.

More than 300 flights were affected as airlines had to divert, and at least 51 services were cancelled. But the Taiwanese transport ministry insisted that the cancellation was due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the military tensions captured global attention, China engaged in a war of words with the United States and its allies.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi abruptly cancelled a meeting with his Japanese counterpart after the Group of Seven, of which Japan is a member, criticised Beijing's reaction to the Pelosi visit.

The PLA has taken the unprecedented step of firing missiles directly over Taiwan.
PHOTO: Weibo

In a joint statement with the European Union, the G7 said "there is no justification to use a visit as a pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait". Beijing's mission to the EU hit back, saying the claim was "heinous".

"Japan, together with the G7 countries and the European Union [are] unreasonably criticising China, confounding morality, and helping the US to violate Chinese sovereignty," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. "The Chinese people are very dissatisfied."

The Japanese government also said five Chinese ballistic missiles fell within its exclusive economic zone, the first time such a ballistic missile had landed within the waters, according to the Japanese defence minister.

"This is a grave issue that concerns our country's national security and the safety of the people," Nobuo Kishi said. Tokyo also lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing.

Exclusive economic zones differ from territorial waters and can stretch up to 200 nautical miles from the coast of a country. Japan, mainland China and Taiwan all hold overlapping claims.

Tokyo says its exclusive economic zone extends to waters near Taiwan, but Beijing does not recognise the claim.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.