China’s Military Drills and Other Tensions With Taiwan, Explained

China said on Monday it would hold new drills near Taiwan, a sign that Beijing may keep up a drumbeat of military pressure on the island after conducting its largest-ever exercises in the area in retaliation for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit last week.

The People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command said it was focused on holding “joint anti-submarine and sea assault operations” on Monday in an unspecified location near the island. The announcement came a day after the military wrapped up 72 hours of exercises encircling Taiwan, effectively simulating a blockade.

The latest drills indicated that Beijing might be seeking to normalize its military’s presence around Taiwan, allowing Chinese forces to practice imposing a slow squeeze of the island that involves cutting off much of the access to the island’s airspace and waters. During last week’s drills, China sent at least 11 missiles into seas north, south and east of Taiwan, and it deployed warships and fighter jets to swarm the island.

Taiwan, an island of 23 million people 80 miles off the coast of China, has long been a source of tension between Washington and Beijing. China claims Taiwan, a democratically governed island, as its territory and has vowed to take it back, using force if necessary.

The Chinese military exercises were in retaliation for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last week.Credit…Sam Yeh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ms. Pelosi was the highest profile American official to go to Taiwan since 1997, when Newt Gingrich, then the House speaker, made a contentious visit. After she landed in Taipei on Tuesday night, a chorus of Chinese government bodies denounced her visit, claiming that it thwarted China’s efforts at unification with Taiwan and imperiled regional stability.

Here is a look at the issues surrounding China and Taiwan, and what has changed since Ms. Pelosi’s visit.

What is Beijing trying to achieve with its military drills?

China has cast the drills as a show of force intended to punish the island for a visit by Ms. Pelosi that challenged Beijing’s claims to Taiwan. The drills, which pushed ever closer to Taiwan over four days, gave Chinese forces valuable practice should they one day be ordered to attack the island.

On the first day of the drills, five Chinese ballistic missiles fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, east of Taiwan, the first time any had landed in those waters. Analysts saw that as Beijing sending a warning to both the United States and Japan about coming to the aid of Taiwan in the event of a conflict there, reminding Washington that it can strike American bases in the region.

A photo released by Chinese state media said to show People’s Liberation Army planes conducting a training exercise near Taiwan on Sunday, Credit…Li Bingyu/Xinhua, via Associated Press

China selected six areas to hold exercises for their importance in a potential campaign to seal off Taiwan, Maj. Gen. Meng Xiangqing, a professor of strategy at the National Defense University in Beijing, said in an interview on Chinese television. One zone covers the narrowest part of the Taiwan Strait. Others could be used to block a major port or attack three of Taiwan’s main military bases. Another one, facing southern Taiwan, could block an escape route.

China’s military buildup has reached a point where some commanders and analysts think an invasion is an increasingly plausible, though still highly risky, scenario. Even if imminent conflict is unlikely, the exercises are putting the region on edge, and Monday’s announcement of new drills would only add to such concerns. Citing experts, Chinese state media said on Monday that the number of jets patrolling the strait would only grow, not decrease.

China’s leader has long set his sights on Taiwan.

Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in generations, has made it clearer than any of his predecessors that he sees unifying Taiwan with China to be a primary goal of his rule — and a key to what he calls China’s “national rejuvenation” as a modern, unified superpower.

Taiwan figured in Mr. Xi’s early political career. In 1996, a year when tensions flared in the Taiwan Strait, he became the top political officer of a People’s Liberation Army reserve antiaircraft division in Fujian Province, which faces the island from across the Taiwan Strait.

Xi Jinping sees unifying Taiwan with China to be a primary goal of his rule. Credit…Mark R Cristino/EPA, via Shutterstock

His growing interest in unification also reflects a domestic political calculus. Mr. Xi is expected to be confirmed to an unprecedented third term as leader at a Communist Party congress in the fall. Before that meeting, Mr. Xi will be keen to project an image of strength at home and abroad, particularly on the question of Taiwan.

The exercises are intended not only to menace Taiwan and the United States, but also to appease Chinese nationalists at home who had seemed disappointed by what they perceived as an insufficiently domineering response.

Taiwan is the single biggest flash point in U.S.-China relations.

China’s incursions into airspace and waters near Taiwan have become more aggressive in the past several years, heightening the risk of conflict.

In June, Beijing raised the stakes when the Foreign Ministry declared that China had jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait and that it could not be considered an international waterway. And in the past year, Chinese military planes have increasingly probed the airspace near Taiwan, prompting the Taiwanese military to scramble fighter jets.

Beijing ratcheted up the pressure during Ms. Pelosi’s visit. China’s military announced live-fire drills that started Thursday, some of them in parts of the sea that appear to infringe on areas that Taiwan says are in its territorial waters.

In an intentionally ambiguous diplomatic arrangement adopted in 1979, the United States maintains a “one China” policy that acknowledges, but does not endorse, Beijing’s claim over Taiwan. U.S. leaders have remained vague about how they would help Taiwan if China attacked, but President Biden has pledged to defend the island.

Taiwan has long been caught between the two rivals.

Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China. For decades, its population lived under martial law imposed by a U.S.-backed regime led by Chiang Kai-shek, who had fled China after being overthrown by Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution of 1949. China and the United States twice came close to going to war over Taiwan in the 1950s.

Shopping at a fish market in Donggang, Taiwan, on Saturday. Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

That Cold War tension mostly subsided in the 1980s and 1990s as Taiwan democratized and China opened up its economy. But it flared again in 1995 and 1996, when China objected to a visit by President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan to Cornell University, his alma mater.

China fired missiles near Taiwan’s main island as a warning to Mr. Lee, and again as Taiwan prepared for its first open presidential election. The crisis ended only when President Bill Clinton ordered aircraft carriers to opposite ends of the Taiwan Strait.

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