Taiwan holds drills amid concerns over Pelosi visit, tensions in China

BEIJING (AP) — Taiwan’s capital held air raid drills on Monday and its military rallied for routine defense drills, coinciding with concerns over a forceful Chinese response to a possible visit to the island. of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Although there is no direct link between China’s renewed threats and Taiwan’s defensive measures, they underscore the possibility of a new crisis in the Taiwan Strait, considered a potential conflict hotspot that could envelop the whole region.

Air raid sirens sounded in the capital Taipei and the military held its annual multi-day Han Kuang drills, including joint air and sea drills and the mobilization of tanks and troops.

In Taipei, police directed people to shelters when a siren went off shortly after lunchtime. The streets emptied and the shops closed.

“In recent years, Chinese military aircraft frequently harassed Taiwan, and the war between Russia and Ukraine broke out in February this year,” Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je told reporters, referring to concerns that a similar conflict could break out in East Asia. “All of these things make us realize the importance of being vigilant in times of peace and we must be prepared if there is a war.”

Pelosi has not confirmed when, or even if, she will visit, but President Joe Biden told reporters last week that US military officials believe such a trip is “not a good idea”. Administration officials are believed to be critical of a possible trip, both for problematic timing and lack of coordination with the White House.

China’s ruling Communist Party regards democratic and self-governing Taiwan as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary, and regularly announces this threat by holding military exercises and flying warplanes into the area. Taiwan Air Defense Identification or across the 180-kilometre (100-mile)-wide centerline of the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing says the actions are aimed at deterring supporters of the island’s formal independence and foreign allies – mainly the United States – from interfering, more than 70 years after the parties split amid civil war. Surveys consistently show that Taiwan’s 23 million people reject China’s claims that the island is a straying Chinese province and should be brought under Beijing’s control.

Pelosi, long a sharp critic of Beijing, is second only to the White House. She is seen as a Biden proxy by China, which demands that members of Congress honor commitments made by previous administrations.

Taiwan is among the few issues that enjoy broad bipartisan support among lawmakers and within the administration, with Biden saying earlier this year that the United States would stand up for Taiwan. if he was attacked.

US law requires Washington to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself and treats all threats to the island as matters of “grave concern”, but remains ambiguous as to whether it would commit forces in response to an attack by China.

Although the parties do not have formal diplomatic relations, the United States is Taiwan’s main provider of foreign defense aid and political support, reflecting its desire to limit China’s growing influence and maintain a strong American presence in the Western Pacific.

During a visit to Indonesia on Sunday, US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Chinese military had become much more aggressive. and dangerous over the past five years.

Milley’s Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, told him in a call earlier this month that Beijing had “no room for compromise.” on issues such as Taiwan.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing had repeatedly expressed its “solemn position” on a possible visit by Pelosi, who would be the highest-ranking US lawmaker to surrender. in Taiwan since 1997.

“We are fully prepared,” Zhao told reporters during a daily briefing. “If the United States is determined to go its own way, China will take firm and strong measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

China has not said what specific action it will take, though speculation has centered on another round of threatening military exercises or even an attempt to prevent Pelosi’s plane from landing by declaring a safe zone. no-fly over Taiwan.

“If the United States is determined to make (a visit) happen, they know that China will take unprecedented tough measures and that the United States must make military preparations,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert. at Renmin University in Beijing.

“Expect huffing and huffing, possibly fire-eaters, military posturing and possibly economic punishment from Taiwan,” said Michael Mazza, a defense and China expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

The timing of a Pelosi visit, which could take place in early August, is particularly sensitive and depends on several factors. Among them is the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army – the military wing of the ruling Communist Party – which falls on August 1, a date used to stoke nationalism and rally troops.

Chinese leaders are also under pressure from hardline nationalist forces within the party ranks.

It is reminiscent of the Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995 and 1996, when China held drills and launched missiles into waters north and south of the island in response to a US visit by the island’s president, Lee. Teng hui. The United States responded by sending two carrier battle groups to the region, a move that helped spur China’s massive military modernization in years that dramatically shifted the balance of power in Asia.

Xi, meanwhile, seeks a third five-year term as party leader at a congress later this year and must show he is in charge amid a slowing economy and public backlash against his “zero-COVID” policy..

Overall, the situation appears to be worse than in 1995-96, said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“If the Chinese want to show resolve, they have plenty of ways to do it,” Glaser said.

China doesn’t want to create a “crisis for crisis’s sake,” but could try to use the possibility of a Pelosi visit to push its agenda, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military affairs and foreign policy at Stanford University.

China could use the opportunity to test its capabilities through a large-scale amphibious exercise, which it would justify as a response to an “aggressive move” by the United States, Mastro said.

“So I think they’re going to use it as an opportunity to make progress that might be problematic, but (which they) wanted to do anyway, regardless of Pelosi’s visit,” she said. declared.

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Associated Press writer Huizhong Wu and videographer Johnson Lai contributed to this report from Taipei, Taiwan.

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