In Taiwan, reactions to the Chinese live-fire drills held around Taiwan in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s much-publicized visit earlier this month were primarily muted. Although the live-fire drills were a front-page headline, much domestic news discourse seemed focused more on a plagiarism scandal affecting the Democratic Progressive Party’s Taoyuan mayoral candidate, former Hsinchu mayor Lin Chih-chien, than the live-fire drills.
This was similar to reactions to the Pelosi visit itself. Whether the visit would take place or not was discussed internationally for weeks on end, with warnings as to the reprisals from China that would ensue. Yet there only seemed to be widespread public discussion of the trip in Taiwan 48 hours before Pelosi touched down at Taipei’s Songshan Airport.
After the visit, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drills took place less than 20 kilometers from Taiwan, and live-fire zones announced for the drills cut into Taiwan’s sovereign territorial waters. There was relative calm in Taiwan, despite fears that the PLA drills could be a pretext for a blockade of Taiwan. There was not much in the way of panic buying or clamoring for air raid shelters, as international observers would have perhaps expected. Although Little Liuqiu, near where some of the drills took place, reported declining tourist numbers, there were also some reports in Taiwanese news of tourists that, in fact, went there precisely to see if they could catch a glimpse of the exercises.
In the course of the drills, the PLA possibly fired missiles over Taiwan for the first time. Missiles fired passed over Taipei and into one of the six zones in which China was conducting live-fire drills. It is thought that this was meant to signal China’s capacity to hit targets in Taipei, as part of a decapitation strike.
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Taiwanese experts had warned that China might fire missiles over major metropolitan centers such as Taipei, Taichung, or Kaohsiung, but most international media seemed to think this was unlikely ahead of the drills. Nevertheless, this did not elicit particularly strong reactions in Taiwan either. Though Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) also asserted that the live-fire drills amounted to a blockade, there was little fear of being cut off from international shipping either, with Taiwanese experts emphasizing that a blockade would be a full-on act of war and so would be unlikely to occur.
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It was first learned through Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) that missiles had passed over Taiwan, with the Japanese MoD also reporting a different number of missiles than Taiwan. Japan’s report centered on the fact that missiles landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, but included additional details Taiwan’s MND had not. For its part, in a press conference, the MND stated that the different missile count was due to the different locations of Taiwanese and Japanese sensors. It also chalked the differing details up to different government policies on what information is considered sensitive to release.
The PLA’s Eastern Command initially announced six zones in which live-fire drills around Taiwan would be carried out. In this timeframe, Taiwan’s Maritime and Port Bureau warned fishing vessels to keep away from the zones during the drills, as well as for vessels to report if they encountered any Chinese. The bureau later warned that a seventh zone had been added by China.
Significantly, the Chinese government sought to be deliberately ambiguous about its timeline for the drills. Although the drills were originally scheduled to last from August 4 to August 7, on August 7, the Eastern Command announced that it would be extending the drills.
The announcement did not indicate where further drills would take place, nor how long they would last. Finally, on August 10, China announced an end to its exercises but said that normal activities around Taiwan would continue.
However, following the arrival in Taiwan on Sunday of another U.S. congressional delegation, this time led by Senator Ed Markey, China announced a new set of drills that would take place in airspace and the waters around Taiwan.
The Markey delegation met with government officials such as President Tsai Ing-wen and, like the Pelosi delegation, is bipartisan. Meetings by the Markey delegation will touch on many of the same subjects as the Pelosi visit, such as Taiwan-U.S. cooperation on semiconductors and regional security. Nonetheless, the visit has been conducted in a much lower-key manner than Pelosi’s trip, including the fact that it was not leaked in advance. It has correspondingly received far less coverage in the Taiwanese media.
With some reports suggesting that a third U.S. delegation will arrive later this month, it remains to be seen whether China announces further drills. As visits to Taiwan by U.S. elected officials become increasingly regularized, so, too, may Chinese military exercises.
Even after the official end to the drills on August 10, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense continued to report daily incursions into airspace and waters around Taiwan by Chinese vessels and aircraft. This, then, raises the specter of China more generally stepping up military activity around Taiwan.
Yet announcing new drills in response to U.S. visits may be a way to package activity that would have taken place anyway. Chinese military actions around Taiwan have at times taken place on a near-daily basis since the historic number of Chinese air incursions that took place in October 2021. These have mostly taken the form of air incursions. Indeed, starting last year, Chinese air incursions began to take place with such frequency that they could be seen as a form of training – not just signaling.
The new development seen since the Pelosi visit is Chinese naval activity taking place on a near-daily basis as well, which may be coordinated. The Taiwanese government has warned that China’s recent drills were to simulate an invasion.
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In the course of the drills, there were a number of examples of disinformation thought to be of Chinese origin. For example, the most widely circulated image of the drills internationally shows a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) soldier on a ship holding a set of binoculars looking at another Chinese vessel, with what appears to be the Heping Power Plant on Taiwan’s eastern coast in the background. According to the Taiwan FactCheck Center, this image is doctored. Taiwan’s MND also issued a statement on the day that the image began circulating that Chinese vessels had not entered Taiwan’s territorial waters.
Other instances of disinformation involved using old images and videos, or images from other locations, and claiming that this was recent news. This included videos of U.S. fighter jets claimed to be near Taiwan, videos of missiles being fired over what was said to be Yilan, or images that purported to show Chinese troops massing on the coasts. Still further instances of disinformation claimed that the Taoyuan International Airport had been hit by a missile attack, or that flights in Taiwan were canceled because of the exercises, when this was not the case.
In cyberspace, DDoS attacks on Taiwanese government and media websites have continued, as have cyberattacks, with websites for departments at National Taiwan University hacked to show pro-unification messages. DDoS or cyberattacks attacks may not be from state actors necessarily, but could be carried out by Chinese online nationalists, often referred to as “little pinks.”
Hackers also targeted convenience stores and train displays, making them display messages critical of Pelosi during her visit. Hacker group APT27 later claimed responsibility for the act. APT27 is often thought to be state-backed, but denied any connection to the Chinese government, being Chinese, or understanding Chinese on its now-suspended Twitter account.
During the visit, a 32-year-old Taiwanese man was detained in China on charges of supporting Taiwanese independence, though his background also involves interactions with the gangster-linked Chinese Unification Promotion Party. This did not become a substantial news story in Taiwan but was largely overshadowed by other news items during and after the visit.
While perhaps meant to inspire fear, it is to be questioned what China hoped to accomplish with its exercises. Past precedents suggest Chinese threats have more often led the Taiwanese public to rally behind the DPP during elections, rather than to discourage it from voting for the historically pro-independence party. Cases in point include reactions to Xi Jinping’s 2019 speech, in which he stated that force was still on the table to reunify Taiwan, as well as the outbreak of the 2019 Hong Kong protests.
During the drills, the KMT thanked the ROC military for their actions to defend the nation, though it was not especially strident in criticisms of China. With China announcing a resumption of its drills following the visit by the Markey delegation, the KMT has been more explicitly critical of Chinese military exercises.
Under current KMT chair Eric Chu, the KMT has sought to try and turn around its pro-China image and rebrand as a pro-U.S. party, with Chu taking a highly publicized visit to the United States, and the KMT reopening its long-shuttered Washington, D.C., office.
Yet the KMT Vice Chair Andrew Hsia surprised many by announcing a trip to China shortly after Pelosi’s visit. The potential for backlash against the KMT in the wake of China’s exercises, by reinforcing the association between the KMT and China as the historically pro-unification party in Taiwan, should be self-evident. As such, the announcement led to a public letter from younger politicians in the KMT calling on Hsia to cancel his trip, though the letter may also have been issued as part of political jockeying within the party.
Hsia previously participated virtually in the Straits Forum held in Xiamen annually each year, doing so instead of Chu. This raises the possibility that Hsia, a former Mainland Affairs Council minister, may be acting on his own in defiance of Chu. Alternatively, Chu may be seeking to hedge bets between both the U.S. and China at present.
Hsia’s own narrative is that his trip is not to meet with Chinese government officials, but to meet Taiwanese residing in China, as part of a fact-checking mission, and that the trip was not in response to recent events but was pre-planned. Pan-Green politicians have questioned if Hsia is hoping to solicit donations from Taiwanese in China, suggesting that this may violate laws on campaign contributions. Controversy over the trip led Hsia to step back from his role as adviser to KMT-controlled Taichung, indicating that association with him may be damaging for other party politicians at present.