Asia on edge as China launches air and sea military drills around Taiwan

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<span>Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

China has put Asia on edge after launching huge military exercises in the air and seas around Taiwan, firing missiles across the populated north of the island, disrupting one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and diverting hundreds of flights in a brazen show of force.

Taipei accused Beijing of imitating North Korea, a global pariah, while Japan, which already has a tense relationship with China, said at least five of the 11 Dongfeng ballistic missiles fired on Thursday landed in its exclusive economic zone.

Foreign governments and multilateral groups including the G7 and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) condemned the hostilities and called for calm.

The exercises, which included rockets, attack helicopters and gunships, were arranged in reaction to a defiant visit by the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to the island this week, which Beijing claims as its own and has threatened to take by force.

At midday local time on Thursday, the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV announced the beginning of an “important military training exercise and organised live fire”, expected to include missile tests.

The People’s Liberation Army’s eastern theatre command announced it had conducted “long-range live-fire shooting training” in the Taiwan strait, including “precision strikes on specific areas in the eastern part”. It said “expected results had been achieved” but did not clarify what that meant.

At about the same time, an AFP reporter based in Pingtan, on China’s coast, witnessed the Chinese army launching several small projectiles into the water, “from the proximity of nearby military installations flying into the sky followed by plumes of white smoke and loud booming sounds around”.

Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it “strong condemns” Beijing for “following the example of North Korea in wilfully test-firing missiles into waters near other countries”. Taipei also called on the international community to “condemn China’s military coercion”.

On Thursday night, Japan’s defence ministry said five missiles launched by China during the drills near Taiwan had fallen into its exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles – or 370km – from Japan’s coast. Tokyo has protested against the drills to Beijing, according to Japan Times.

Notices of the exercises identified six areas encircling Taiwan, with warnings for all ships and aircraft to “not enter the relevant sea areas and airspace”. On Thursday, local media reported the last-minute announcement of a seventh. Some of the zones overlap with Taiwan’s territorial waters, and are near key shipping ports.

Taiwan’s defence ministry has accused China of in effect mounting a blockade by their actions. Flights and ships were still able to arrive in Taiwan, but had reportedly been advised to find alternative routes. About 900 flights are estimated to be affected by the avoidance notices over the drill period.

Related: China-Taiwan tensions: how worried should we be about military conflict?

Ten minutes before the drills began, Taiwan’s department of defence issued a statement accusing the Chinese government of “irrational behaviour” with its live-fire exercises, saying they had “the intention of changing the status quo and disrupting regional peace and stability”.

“The ministry of national defence stresses that it will uphold the principle of preparing for war without seeking war, and with an attitude of not escalating conflict and causing disputes,” it said. “The national army will continue to strengthen its alert, and troops at all levels will conduct daily training.”

The US House speaker arrived in Taipei on Tuesday night under intense global scrutiny. She met Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, as well as other political and business leaders and dissidents. She said US solidarity with Taiwan was “crucial” in facing an increasingly authoritarian China.

“Our delegation came to Taiwan to make unequivocally clear we will not abandon Taiwan, and we are proud of our enduring friendship.”

China has reacted with fury since the plan for the visit was leaked some weeks ago. It had threatened countermeasures – an oft-heard response to foreign acts of support for Taiwan, but which drew higher than usual levels of concern from China watchers. Analysts suggested Beijing had backed itself into a corner with its heightened rhetoric, and would have to demonstrate a much larger show of force than usual if it did not want to lose credibility.

On Wednesday, Chinese state media reported that a man from Taiwan had been arrested and accused of “involving in Taiwan independence secessionist activities” and “of suspicion of endangering national security”.

Related: South Korean president accused of avoiding Nancy Pelosi in bid to placate China

Thursday’s drills are in unprecedented proximity to Taiwan, and included PLA warplane and navy vessel incursions over the median line of the Taiwan strait – an unofficial border between China and Taiwan.

On Wednesday night, hours after Pelosi left for South Korea, unidentified aircraft, probably drones, flew above the area of Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen islands near the mainland coast, Taiwan’s defence ministry said. “We immediately fired flares to issue warnings and to drive them away,” Maj Gen Chang Zone-sung of the army’s Kinmen defence command told Reuters.

Several cyber-attacks also struck Taiwan, targeting websites of the defence ministry, the foreign ministry and the presidential office.

On Wednesday, unidentified hackers allegedly targeted 7-Eleven convenience stores, making all in-store televisions across the island display a message accusing Pelosi of being a “warmonger”. The text was written in simplified Chinese, used in mainland China.

On Thursday the threats and rhetoric from Chinese officials continued. China’s ambassador to France has said the Taiwanese people would be “re-educated” after any successful annexation by China, in a fiery interview on French television.

The ambassador, Lu Shaye, accused Taiwan’s governing Democratic Progressive party of conducting “extremist” propaganda and turning the Taiwanese people against “reunification” with China.

When asked about previous comments about “re-educating” Taiwan’s population, Lu said: “We will re-educate. I’m sure that … the Taiwanese population will again become favourable of the reunification, and will become patriots again.”

Online, many observers noted the term “re-education” was also used to describe Chinese authorities’ treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.

Beijing claims Taiwan is a Chinese province and reserves the right to take it by force. Its Taiwan affairs office said the dispute was an internal affair. “Our punishment of pro-Taiwan independence diehards, external forces is reasonable, lawful,” it said.

Foreign ministers from the 10-member Asean, meeting in Cambodia this week, called for “maximum restraint”, without mentioning the US or China by name. In a statement it said the situation could lead to “serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences among major powers”.

At the Asean meeting, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, claimed Beijing had made the “greatest diplomatic efforts” but would “never allow its core interests to be hurt”.

The G7 countries also urged calm, accusing China of “increasing tensions and destabilising the region”.

“There is no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan strait,” it said. “We call on the PRC [People’s Republic of China] not to unilaterally change the status quo by force in the region, and to resolve cross-strait differences by peaceful means.”

In response, China’s UK embassy accused the G7 of being “led astray by the US” and told its members to “stop making wrong remarks relating to Taiwan, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop sending wrong signals in any form to secessionist forces seeking ‘Taiwan independence’”.

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin, Rebecca Ratcliffe and Reuters

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