Playing with fire at Taiwan’s maritime border

On Friday, the Ministry of Defense in the Taiwanese capital Taipei said that “several Chinese warplanes and warships” had already crossed the center line of the Taiwan Strait (Formosa Strait) in the morning (local time). This connects the East and South China Seas and is one of the busiest cargo routes in the region.

The immediate reason for the saber-rattling was the visit of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan on Tuesday. Beijing saw this as interference in its internal affairs and had threatened consequences in advance. After their departure, China began military maneuvers, reaching as far as 20 kilometers from the Taiwanese coast. According to the current status, the exercises should last until Sunday.

“The Wicked Neighbor”

Taiwan’s Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang strongly condemned the maneuvers. The government in Taipei did not expect “that the spiteful neighbor would hold a show of force on our doorstep and arbitrarily jeopardize the world’s busiest sea routes with military exercises,” Su told journalists.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen called the Chinese maneuvers around the island republic “irresponsible”. In a video address late Thursday evening, she urged the Chinese leadership to exercise common sense and restraint. Taiwan will not escalate tensions but wants to maintain the status quo. For their part, Japan and the US stressed their willingness to cooperate closely and the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Demonstrative disregard of the unofficial sea border

The Taiwanese Ministry of Defense described the maneuvers on Friday as a “highly provocative act”. The center line of the Taiwan Strait is an unofficial but widely observed boundary in the middle of the strait that separates China and Taiwan. Already on Wednesday and Thursday, China Taipei had crossed the center line almost 50 times, mostly with fighter jets.

Outline map of China and Taiwan

Graphics: APA/ORF.at

Fighter jets and warships had long rarely violated this line, but since 2020 Chinese border crossings have become more frequent, particularly with fighter jets penetrating Taiwan’s air defense zone. This is not synonymous with Taiwanese airspace and partially overlaps with the Chinese Defense Zone.

Beijing had previously stated that, from its point of view, the unofficial border no longer existed. Crossings of the center line in the Taiwan Strait, which is only 130 kilometers wide at its narrowest point, are risky because they make military incidents more likely.

Since Taiwan split from China, Beijing has wanted to reunite the island with the mainland – if necessary using military force.

Sanctions against Pelosi

The Taiwan visit with sanctions imposed by China also has consequences for Pelosi himself. As the spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, announced in Beijing on Friday, the punitive measures, which are not described in detail, are also aimed at direct family members of Pelosi.

By traveling to Taiwan against Beijing’s opposition, the top US politician interfered in China’s internal affairs. It has also undermined China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and “severely trampled on the One China” principle. China is imposing the sanctions in response to Pelosi’s “outrageously provocative behavior,” the State Department spokeswoman said. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was the highest-ranking US visit to Taipei in a quarter-century.

“Significant Escalation”

Notwithstanding the dispute over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, according to the US, lines of communication with China remain open. That is the case at various levels, said the spokesman for the National Security Council in Washington, John Kirby, on Thursday (local time). His government would support a de-escalation of tensions through diplomatic channels, he said.

a Chinese military helicopter over the sea

APA/AFP/Hector Retamal

Saber rattling after a high-ranking visit from the USA

Kirby called China’s recent military exercises a “significant escalation”. The US assumed that the Chinese reaction would continue for a few more days. The US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan will remain in the region to monitor the situation.

US missile test canceled

However: According to Kirby, the USA has postponed the planned test of a ballistic ICBM. It was not in the interests of the United States, Taiwan and the region “that tensions should be allowed to escalate further,” he said. While China is conducting “destabilizing military exercises around Taiwan,” the United States is instead “demonstrating the behavior of a responsible nuclear power by reducing the risks of miscalculation,” Kirby said.

“Temperature quite high”

The Chinese armed forces fired at least 11 Dongfeng ballistic missiles during their naval maneuvers, according to the Taiwanese Defense Ministry. They crashed into the sea. Kirby described the missile maneuver as an exaggerated reaction to the Pelosi visit. “China has decided to overreact and use the spokeswoman’s visit as an excuse to escalate provocative military activities in and around the Taiwan Strait.” Kirby described the situation as saying, “The temperature is quite high.”

The Chinese military had previously confirmed drills for “a conventional missile attack in multiple locations and with multiple types of weapons” off the coast of Taiwan. All of the missiles “hit their target precisely” and tested “the hitting precision and area defense capability.”

The conflict is also overshadowing the current summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh. Before a speech by Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Ji are said to have left the meeting room. They were apparently reacting to Japan’s criticism of China’s maneuvers off Taiwan and Russia’s war against Ukraine, it said.

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