PINGTAN, China: China fired ballistic missiles and deployed fighter jets and warships on Thursday as it held its largest-ever military exercises around Taiwan, a show of force sparked by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island.
Pelosi was the highest-profile US official to visit Taiwan in years, defying a series of stark threats from Beijing, which views the self-ruled island as its territory. In retaliation, China launched a series of exercises in multiple zones around Taiwan, straddling some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and at some points just 20-km from the island’s shore.
The drills began around 12 noon local time (0400 GMT), and involved a "conventional missile firepower assault" in waters to the east of Taiwan, the Chinese military said. Taiwan said the Chinese military fired 11 Dongfeng-class ballistic missiles "in several batches" and condemned the exercises as "irrational actions that undermine regional peace".
Taipei did not say where the missiles landed or whether they flew over the island. But Japan, a key US ally, said that of the nine missiles it had detected, four were "believed to have flown over Taiwan’s main island".
Tokyo has lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing over the exercises, with Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi saying five of the missiles were believed to have landed in his country’s exclusive economic zone.
Taipei’s defence ministry said it had detected 22 Chinese fighter jets briefly crossing the Taiwan Strait’s "median line" during Thursday’s exercises. AFP journalists on the border island of Pingtan saw several small projectiles flying into the sky followed by plumes of white smoke and loud booming sounds.
On the mainland, at what is said to be China’s closest point to Taiwan, AFP saw a batch of five military helicopters flying at a relatively low altitude near a popular tourist spot. Beijing has said the drills will last until midday on Sunday.
Beijing has defended the drills as "necessary and just", pinning the blame for the escalation on the United States and its allies. "In the face of this blatant provocation, we have to take legitimate and necessary countermeasures to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing on Thursday.
Meanwhile, ballistic missiles fired by China are believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time, Tokyo’s defence minister said on Thursday. "Five of the nine ballistic missiles launched by China are believed to have landed within Japan’s EEZ," Nobuo Kishi told reporters, as China holds massive military drills in the waters around Taiwan.
Japan had "lodged a protest with China through diplomatic channels", Kishi said, calling the matter "a serious problem that affects our national security and the safety of our citizens". Parts of Japan’s southernmost island region Okinawa are close to Taiwan. Kishi said it was the first time Chinese ballistic missiles had landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The EEZ extends up to 200 nautical miles from Japan’s coastline, beyond the limits of its territorial waters. The figure of nine missiles fired was an assessment by the Japanese side, Kishi said.