China sent record numbers of military aircraft, as well as naval ships and an aircraft carrier, near Taiwan on Monday in the final day of military exercises choreographed to raise pressure on the island while stopping short of an escalation that could set off a conflict.
China has said the three days of drills were retaliation against a visit by President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan to the United States last week and her meeting with Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the House of Representatives. Beijing claims Taiwan, a self-governed democracy, as its territory, and opposes such exchanges with the island’s leaders.
China has also seized the opportunity to use the drills to signal that Taiwan would be vulnerable if Beijing ever set out to claim the island by force, and that Washington could not be trusted to step into such a conflict.
During the drills, Chinese fighter jets practiced taking off from the aircraft carrier Shandong off the east coast of Taiwan, an island about 100 miles from China. Other ships maneuvered in the seas around Taiwan. Troops from the People’s Liberation Army were scheduled to hold live-fire practice off a small Chinese island that hugs the Chinese coast.
By Monday evening, 91 Chinese military aircraft had flown into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone — a self-imposed buffer around the island — on that day, according to estimates issued by Taiwan’s defense ministry. That marked the highest daily total of such Chinese sorties since Taiwan began regularly releasing the data in 2020. The previous high was 71, set in December and again on Saturday. The air defense identification zone is much broader than Taiwan’s sovereign airspace.
“Are the ‘security assurances’ provided by the United States reliable? The answer is, of course, negative,” said an editorial in the Chinese military’s main newspaper, the Liberation Army Daily, on Sunday. “Its sinister designs to use Taiwan as a pawn, courting disaster for the two sides of the strait, are there for all to see.”
Still, experts have said the Chinese drills have been smaller and less menacing than similar exercises held in August to simulate a blockade after Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House, visited Taiwan.
Even so, China’s display of force this time was full of intimidating messages and images warning of the potential consequences if it defies Beijing’s demands for unification.
The Chinese military’s Eastern Theater Command, which oversees an area including Taiwan, said its forces were holding “simulated precision attacks,” and shared a short, crude cartoon of missiles raining around the island, and striking near or on two of its biggest cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung. The command also issued a video purporting to show a bomber taking part in the exercises.
“I’ve arrived in skies north of Taiwan Island. The plane is operating normally and the missiles are in good shape,” a pilot says. The video ends with a voice saying: “Missile ready. Fire!”
Live-fire exercises were scheduled to take place on Monday in the waters off Pingtan, an island in Fujian Province, opposite Taiwan, but details of what took place there were scant. Later on Monday, the Chinese military declared that the exercises were completed and had honed its ability to “smash ‘Taiwanese independence’ separatism and external meddling in any form.”
“These exercises demonstrated a rapid response capability — they were announced in the morning, and the forces assembled in the afternoon to start military drills,” Song Zhongping, a commentator in Beijing who is a former military officer, said in messaged answers to questions.
“Each exercise will bring improvements, and that’s because each exercise is a preparation for battle,” he said. “I, for one, don’t think that the deterrent level of these exercises has been any less than in August.”
Taiwan’s military has responded to the Chinese exercises with its own stream of images and announcements showing aircraft, soldiers and vessels ready to defend the island.
“What is quite worrisome is that, owing to the sharp increase in naval and air forces from both sides of the strait at close quarters near the median line and around Taiwan, the risks of accidents leading to an inadvertent exchange of fire have greatly increased,” said Chieh Chung, an adjunct assistant professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
China said on Sunday that one of its ships was as close as 5 nautical miles from a Taiwanese naval ship. Taiwan’s defense ministry said that the island’s forces were under orders to avoiding setting off incidents.
“As a responsible member of the international community, Taiwan will not engage in escalating clashes or provoking disputes,” the island’s foreign ministry said on Monday.
In China’s exercises last year, it fired at least 11 missiles into the seas off Taiwan. Though the latest exercises have not involved missiles, experts will examine the drills for signs of how the People’s Liberation Army’s abilities have evolved.
One focus may be the Shandong, the Chinese aircraft carrier. It sent dozens of sorties by fighter jets, according to Japanese military authorities. The flights seemed to be the first time that Chinese J-15 jets, designed to operate from aircraft carriers, have been tracked entering Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone,” said Ben Lewis, an analyst who monitors such flights.
China deployed the aircraft carrier to reinforce its claim that it could “surround and encircle” Taiwan, said Ou Si-fu, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei, which is affiliated with Taiwan’s defense ministry. “That is to say that it can do it on our east coast, as well as our west coast,” Mr. Ou said.
China launched the exercises on Saturday, shortly after President Emmanuel Macron of France finished a visit to China in which he sought to bolster cooperation and urged China’s leader, Mr. Xi, to help end Russia’s war in Ukraine. Mr. Macron had told reporters that the Taiwan issue was not for him to judge and he did not detect any Chinese desire to “overreact.”
Many Taiwanese residents seemed largely unruffled by the exercises. They have lived under Chinese threats for decades, and many see a real war as a distant danger.
“The drills in 2022 were totally different,” said Tsao Chih-ping, 26, a tour guide on Dongju Island, a Taiwanese island about 15 miles from Pingtan, China, who said she didn’t hear or see the past days’ exercises. “I don’t feel the same tensions of last summer.”