China begins new military drills as U.S. delegation visits Taiwan
TAIPEI, Taiwan - China announced new military drills around Taiwan on Monday, as a delegation of U.S. lawmakers met with Taiwanese officials at a time of heightened tensions in the region, with Beijing accusing the United States of "playing cheap political tricks" by strengthening its unofficial relationship with the self-governing democracy.
China's Taiwan Affairs Office also warned Taiwan's leaders that they would be "severely punished" if they continued to provoke Beijing.
The delegation of five members of Congress, led by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., were expected to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen during an overnight stop in Taipei as part of a larger tour of Asia, according to a statement from the American Institute in Taiwan. Taiwan had not released details of the meeting by midafternoon Monday local time.
In a statement Monday, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing, said China opposes the lawmakers' trip and warned of unspecified consequences if Taiwan's leaders "failed to restrain themselves."
"Certain individuals in the United States haven't learned that lesson from the consequences of Pelosi's visit," he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin also criticized the delegation, saying it was sending "seriously wrong signals" toward "separatist forces" in Taiwan.
Beijing's reaction on Monday was less fiery than its response to the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., two weeks earlier, which sparked the largest display of Chinese military saber rattling since the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.
On Monday afternoon, however, the People's Liberation Army's Eastern Theater Command announced drills involving multiple branches of the military near Taiwan, which it said were a warning to the United States and Taiwan against "playing cheap political tricks." China's Defense Ministry said in a statement that the latest visit by U.S. lawmakers showed that the United States was the "true agitator and breaker of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait." It added that the Chinese military continues to perfect its ability to repel any foreign interference in the region.
The initially muted response differed starkly from the flurry of angry statements that Beijing released as soon as Pelosi's plane touched down in Taipei on Aug. 2. Because of security concerns, U.S. lawmakers' visits to Taiwan are usually unannounced - unlike the House speaker's trip, which was reported by the Financial Times in July.
China's military show of force in response to Pelosi's visit began in earnest a day after she left. Then, over four days, China fired missiles into the sea on all sides of Taiwan's main island while fighter jets repeatedly crossed the unofficial border that runs down the middle of the strait. Taiwan's military said the drills were tantamount to a blockade and involved simulation of an attack, although disruptions to commercial flights and shipping were limited and daily life continued largely as normal for Taiwan's 23 million residents.
White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell said Friday that China "overreacted." He said the United States would continue to conduct air and maritime transits through the Taiwan Strait in the next few weeks.
The arrival of another delegation just as tensions in the Taiwan Strait were easing underscores a growing rift between Beijing and Washington over the latter's efforts to strengthen its unofficial relationship with Taipei. While the United States is seeking to normalize visits by its lawmakers, China is trying to "securitize" exchanges with regular military responses, said Wen-Ti Sung, a scholar at the Australian National University's Taiwan Studies Program.
"U.S. congressional visits to Taiwan do not amount to change in U.S. policy, though Beijing may criticize them as such," Sung said. Reconsidering or delaying such visits to Taiwan for fear of provoking a drastic Chinese military response "would allow Beijing to link a normal exercise in parliamentary diplomacy with military stability, and securitize a hitherto relatively nonsensitive area of diplomacy," he added.
Beijing in recent months has issued increasingly pointed warnings directed at both Taipei and Washington not to test its resolve over Taiwan. In a white paper issued last week, China's State Council instructed the United States "not to stand in the way of the reunification of China" and laid out Beijing's belief that the United States is undermining China's claims though actions including "contriving 'official' exchanges with Taiwan, increasing arms sales, and colluding in military provocation."
The document also dropped a previous commitment not to station Chinese troops or send administrative personnel to Taiwan in the event of unification - a shift widely interpreted in Taiwan as indicating a hardened position by Beijing.
The White House has repeatedly stated that the United States' one-China policy - which acknowledges Beijing's claims over Taiwan but takes no position on how the two sides should resolve their differences other than urging a peaceful resolution - remains unchanged. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington retains close unofficial ties with Taipei, including supporting Taiwanese efforts to build up its own defense.
Eva Dou reported from Beijing. The Washington Post's Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.