China’s military is practising ship-launched strikes on Taiwan from the east, information released by Taiwan’s defence ministry on Monday indicated, as Beijing’s retaliatory military drills entered their third day.
The defence ministry did not give the positions of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ships it had detected, but a map of PLA aircraft detections show four J-15 fighter jets east of Taiwan, in the western Pacific, on Saturday.
The J-15s have never been seen inside Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) before, and are known to be launched from two PLA aircraft carriers, including the Shandong which had been tracked by Taiwan and Japan sailing past Taiwan into waters to its south-east late last week.
On Monday Japan confirmed its military had responded to the drills, scrambling jets in response to the PLA’s aircraft launches.
On Saturday, Beijing launched three days of military exercises targeting Taiwan in response to Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, meeting the US house speaker, Kevin McCarthy in Los Angeles last week. Beijing objects to any international support of Taiwan, which it considers to be a Chinese province. Taiwan, a democracy of 23 million people, rejects the claim.
The drills have not matched the scale of those launched in retaliation to a Taipei visit by McCarthy’s predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, which included missile launches, but do appear to show an escalation in the Chinese military’s training for strikes on Taiwan, observers said.
In the 24 hours to 6am Monday, Taiwan’s defence ministry detected 70 PLA aircraft and 11 ships inside its ADIZ. The ADIZ is a large area monitored for defence purposes, and the PLA assets did not enter sovereign Taiwan territory. Between 6am and 10am the ministry reported 59 planes and 11 ships, including 39 aerial sorties over the median line.
However the ministry said 35 of the planes had crossed the median line – a de facto border in the international waters of the Taiwan Strait.
The launch of J-15s suggested the PLA was “practising strikes on Taiwan from an encirclement-style posture”, independent defence analyst Ben Lewis told the Guardian.
“I view this as an escalation in how the PLA operates around Taiwan, as to our knowledge it has never happened before. Second, these activities provide Chinese carrier pilots with the opportunity to practise this kind of operation in the area where they may execute them during an actual conflict.”
The PLA also claimed to have simulated joint precision missile strikes on “key targets” in Taiwan, according to state media and an animation posted online by the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command which depicted attacks on Taipei and Kaohsiung from missile bases on the Chinese mainland.
On Monday a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said that Taiwan independence and cross-strait peace were “mutually exclusive”, and blamed the tensions on Taipei and unnamed “foreign forces” supporting it.
“If we want to protect peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait we must firmly oppose any form of Taiwan independence separatism,” the spokesman Wang Wenbin warned.
Taiwan’s defence ministry on Monday repeated that it was operating under a principle of “not escalating conflicts and not causing disputes”, but had conducted response drills including shore-based anti-ship missile vehicles and rapid deployment of missile speedboats.
The J-15 launches also prompted a military response from Japan. On Monday its ministry of defence confirmed it had scrambled jets after recording takeoffs and landings by about 80 fighter jets and 40 helicopters from the Shandong.
Japan’s ministry also provided tracking maps of the Shandong and four other ships in its company, revealing it to have moved closer to Taiwan’s east coast between Friday and Sunday.
Speaking after Chinese and Japanese officials met for a regular discussion about maritime disputes, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters Japan was watching the drills closely.
“The importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is not only important for the security of Japan, but also for the stability of the international community as a whole,” he said.
The US has said it is watching developments closely. On Monday the US Navy confirmed it had conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea, near the disputed Spratly Islands. The US conducts such missions on a semi-regular basis, to challenge various countries’ claims over international waters, consistently drawing an angry response from China. A short time later, Beijing accused the US of having “illegally intruded”.
The drills have so far been far smaller in scale than those launched after Pelosi’s visit, which went for more than a week, and surrounded Taiwan’s main island with multiple live-fire exercise zones and missile launches, significantly disrupting air and sea traffic. Chinese officials at the time said the exercises mimicked a blockade China may one day use against Taiwan.
On Sunday a former Taiwan legislator, Guo Zhengliang, told local media that these drills were “not as obvious” as last August, but seemed “closer to the actual state of war” in the specifics of operation. Guo noted the involvement of all three branches of the PLA, coast guard patrols, and heavy assets like the Shandong.
Chinese state media, the People’s Daily, said in an editorial on Monday that both sets of drills sent a “clear message that China will not tolerate any challenge on Taiwan”. “Beijing has repeatedly stressed that the Taiwan question is its domestic affair and national reunification is its core interest. Any such provocations will always be met with a firm response.”
The PLA drills began shortly after Tsai returned to Taiwan, and also coincided with the departure of several foreign leaders who had been visiting China and its leader, Xi Jinping. Analysts had speculated that the presence of foreign leaders may have tempered or delayed Beijing’s response to Tsai’s US trip, which it had labelled a “provocation”. Prior to the military drills, Beijing had announced only sanctions against Taiwan and US officials and institutions that had facilitated her trip.
One of the visiting leaders, French president Emmanuel Macron, on Sunday urged against Europe becoming “followers” in the cross-strait issue, by adapting to “the American rhythm or a Chinese overreaction”.
He said Europe had no interest in an acceleration of the crisis over Taiwan and should pursue a strategy independent of both Washington and Beijing.
The drills have had little effect on daily life in Taiwan, and apart from extensive media coverage on day one, have not registered among the top headlines. Coverage of Macron’s comments focused largely on criticisms and accusations that he was “pandering” to Xi.