China Says Taiwan Military Drills Over, Plans Regular Patrols

China’s President Xi Jinping (Selim Chtayti/Pool Photo via AP)

(Bloomberg/TNS) – China’s military said exercises held around Taiwan in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit had concluded, while pledging to continue regular patrols near the island.

The People’s Liberation Army “successfully completed all tasks” set out in exercises last week, Eastern Theater Command spokesman Senior Colonel Shi Yi said Wednesday. The statement seems to ended ambiguity on the status of the drills three days after navigational alerts warning ships and airplanes to avoid six large areas around the island expired.

Still, the PLA planned to “regularly organize patrols in the direction of the Taiwan Strait,” Shi said, adding that such activities would be based on the development of the cross-strait situation. The remark held open the possibility of frequent Chinese military operations across the US-drawn median line that divides the waterway.

“I think the idea here is for China to maintain a presence around Taiwan’s main island,” said Ridzwan Rahmat, a principal defense analyst at Janes. “Such announcements may be a form of pressure on Taiwan. They could be conducting low-tempo exercises, such as maritime patrols and search-and-rescues. These are naval exercises too, but do not involve any live firing.”

The exercises held in the wake of Pelosi’s visit represent some of China’s most provocative actions toward Taiwan in decades. Not only did the PLA test-fire 11 missiles into the surrounding seas — including four likely launched over Taipei — Taiwan accused it of rehearsing possible invasion scenarios.

The PLA statement confirmed what shipping firms and other industries that move people and goods in and out of Taiwan had already deduced — that the most disruptive drills had ended days ago. As of Wednesday, ships traveling to and from Taiwan’s ports had largely resumed previously planned routes.

“The extended drill seems less intensive than the previous ones and the shipowners don’t seem afraid to pass through the affected areas, at least for now,” Emma Li, a China market analyst at Vortexa Ltd., said before the PLA’s statement. “Tanker or bulk ships are just running as normal.”

Still, Chinese President Xi Jinping has already used the crisis to shrink a vaguely defined buffer zone that has kept the peace around Taiwan for decades. More than 180 Chinese warplanes operated east of the Taiwan Strait’s median line over a eight-day period ending Wednesday, once a rare event.

The promise of more patrols will likely fuel concerns that Xi will seek to make such incursions the new status quo. The strategy places greater pressure on US President Joe Biden to craft a response that encourages China to pull back without escalating tensions further.

“Once it’s perpetuated for long enough and becomes accepted as a new normal, then China gets greater military operational flexibility, as well as diplomatic bargaining chip,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at Australia National University’s Taiwan Studies Program.

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