China's military exercises, set to begin at 12:00 pm (0400 GMT), will involve "training activities including live-fire drills", Beijing has said

Pingtan (China) (AFP) - China’s largest-ever military exercises encircling Taiwan were due to kick off Thursday, in a show of force straddling vital international shipping lanes after a visit to the island by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi left Taiwan Wednesday after a trip that defied a series of increasingly stark threats from Beijing, which views the self-ruled island as its territory.

Second in line to the presidency, Pelosi was the highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years.

She said her presence made it “unequivocally clear” that the United States would “not abandon” a democratic ally like Taiwan.

The trip sparked a furious reaction from Beijing, which vowed “punishment” and announced military drills in the seas around Taiwan – some of the world’s busiest waterways.

The exercises, set to begin at 12 pm (0400 GMT), will involve “training activities including live-fire drills”, according to an announcement in state media.

They will take place in multiple zones encircling Taiwan – at some points within just 20 kilometres (12 miles) of the island’s shore – and will conclude at midday on Sunday.

Nationalist state-run tabloid Global Times said, citing military analysts, that the exercises were “unprecedented” and that missiles would fly over Taiwan for the first time.

“This is the first time the PLA will launch live long-range artillery across” the Taiwan Strait, the newspaper said using the Chinese military’s formal name, the People’s Liberation Army.

Drills taking place since last Tuesday have set the stage for the exercises, with the official Xinhua news agency reporting they had simulated a “joint blockade” of Taiwan.

Map of Taiwan and its surrounding waters, highlighting the areas of the Chinese military drills from August 4 to 7.

Taipei has condemned the plans, warning they threaten the security of the East Asia region.

“Some of the areas of China’s drills breach into… (Taiwan’s) territorial waters,” defence ministry spokesman Sun Li-fang said at a press conference Wednesday.

“This is an irrational move to challenge the international order.”

The Group of Seven industrialised nations also condemned the planned drills, saying in a statement there was “no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait”.

- ‘Preparation for actual combat’ -

Taiwan’s Maritime and Port Bureau issued warnings on Wednesday to ships to avoid the areas being used for the Chinese drills.

Beijing has defended the drills as "necessary and just"

The Taiwanese cabinet said the drills would disrupt 18 international routes passing through its flight information region (FIR).

The island’s defence ministry said Taiwanese forces on Wednesday night fired a flare to warn away a drone flying over the island of Kinmen, which lies just 10 km from the Chinese mainland city of Xiamen.

The statement did not say what kind of drone it was or where it came from.

Beijing has defended its military operations as “necessary and just”, pinning the blame for the escalation on the United States and its allies.

“In the current struggle surrounding Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, the United States are the provocateurs, China is the victim,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing Wednesday.

A Chinese military source also told AFP the exercises would be staged “in preparation for actual combat”.

“If the Taiwanese forces come into contact with the PLA on purpose and accidentally fire a gun, the PLA will take stern countermeasures, and all the consequences will be borne by the Taiwanese side,” the source said.

- ‘Some limits’ -

Taiwan’s 23 million people have long lived with the possibility of an invasion, but that threat has intensified under President Xi Jinping, China’s most assertive ruler in a generation.

Just 130 km wide at its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is a major international shipping channel and all that lies between democratic Taiwan and its giant authoritarian neighbour.

It is now a flashpoint between the United States, Taiwan and a Chinese leadership keen to project strength ahead of a crucial ruling party meeting this autumn at which Xi is expected to be given an unprecedented third term.

“China’s announced military exercises represent a clear escalation from the existing baseline of Chinese military activities around Taiwan and from the last Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996,” said Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group.

“Beijing is signalling that it rejects Taiwan’s sovereignty.”

Nevertheless, analysts have told AFP that China is not aiming to escalate the situation beyond its control – at least for now.

“Clearly they recognise that there are some limits to what they are willing to do,” Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.

And Titus Chen, an associate professor of political science at the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan, said: “The last thing Xi wants is an accidental war.”