WHITE HOUSE/TAIPEI - The White House announced a series of steps aimed to defend a "free and open Indo-Pacific" following Chinese firing of at least 11 ballistic missiles into waters encircling Taiwan on Thursday, a day after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrapped up a visit to the island that enraged Beijing.
"China has chosen to overreact and use the speaker's visit as a pretext to increase provocative military activity in and around the Taiwan Strait," said John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council on Thursday.
Kirby told reporters U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has directed the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the ships in her strike group to remain in the vicinity to "monitor the situation." He said Washington will also conduct "standard air and maritime transits" through the Taiwan Strait in the next few weeks.
He promised "further steps" to demonstrate commitment to U.S. allies including Japan, which announced that five of the Chinese missiles landed within their exclusive economic zone.
China is pushing to change the status quo on Taiwan, Kirby claimed.
"They're boiling the frog," he said. "They're taking the temperature up to a higher level with perhaps the intention of maintaining that sort of intensity or at least being able to conduct those kinds of operations on a more frequent regular basis going forward."
To reduce tensions, Kirby said that Washington is postponing a long-planned test of an Air Force Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile.
"We certainly would like to see tensions deescalate," Kirby said in a response to a VOA question. He said the United States continues to keep lines of communication open with Beijing, however, "you don't need diplomacy to just simply stop doing something that's escalating tensions and putting peace and security in the region at risk."
Dongfeng ballistic missiles
The Chinese military fired Dongfeng ballistic missiles into the waters near Taiwan's eastern, southern, and northern coasts in a series of volleys Thursday afternoon, said the Taiwanese defense ministry.
China initially said the live-fire military drills will impact six zones near Taiwan and will last through Sunday. However, the exercises Thursday were extended to a seventh zone, where the drills will last a day longer, according to Taiwanese officials.
China's state-controlled media said the tests involved "long-range rocket artillery" and "conventional missiles." The "expected results had been achieved," the reports said, without elaborating.
Videos on Chinese social media showed projectiles being fired from Pingtan in eastern China's Fujian Province - approximately 125 kilometers from Taiwan.
The drills are China's largest and most provocative ever in the Taiwan Strait - one of the designated live-fire zones, less than 20 kilometers from Taiwan's southern coast.
Pelosi, who was making the highest-profile U.S. visit to Taiwan in 25 years, left the island Thursday. China viewed her visit as an unacceptable challenge to its claims over the island.
The Chinese military activity appears designed to intimidate Taiwan, a vibrant democracy that has never been ruled by China's Communist Party.
But the military maneuvers also serve a domestic purpose for China, according to Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official who is now a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.
"What they are doing is signaling their displeasure, their resolve, and meeting their own somewhat outlandish commitments to not be idle and to resolutely respond to provocation, to defend the motherland," he said.
Some defense analysts, and even Chinese state media, have portrayed the exercises as a rehearsal for invasion and a demonstration that Beijing can impose a blockade on Taiwan.
The developments have raised fears of a miscalculation that could result in hostilities, though analysts say there is little chance China is planning an assault.
"It really is more propaganda than performance," said Thompson, noting that China's military is in the middle of its annual summer exercise cycle.
In Taiwan's capital, where residents have dealt with many decades of threats from the Chinese Communist Party, the situation was calm, even as news coverage focused on the threats.
'I wouldn't worry too much about the CCP, they are great at boasting," said Liang Bo-rong, a 65-year-old retiree and Taipei resident, referring to the party by its initials.
While most Taiwanese are aware of the situation and realize the stakes, they are not overly worked up, said Chen Kuan-Ting, who heads the Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a research organization focusing on Taiwan's domestic and foreign policy.
'Most Taiwanese will continue their normal lives - that's the best way to defy China," said Chen.
In a statement Thursday, Taiwan's military said it continues to closely monitor the "irrational" Chinese military activities and is prepared for conflict but that it does not seek escalation.
Taiwanese officials have said the Chinese drills are a severe violation of the island's territorial waters and have compared the action to a blockade.
Some commercial flights are being disrupted. Korean Airlines is canceling or rescheduling all direct flights to Taiwan on Aug. 5-6 due to China's military drills, reported South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
However, Taiwanese transportation officials said Wednesday alternative routes have been arranged and the impact will be minimal.
Late Wednesday, Taiwan's military reportedly fired warning flares at a Chinese People's Liberation Army drone that was flying near the Kinmen islands, which lie next to mainland China. According to Taiwanese media reports, the drone later left the area and headed back to the mainland.
In China's view, Pelosi's visit is the latest in a series of U.S. moves toward more explicit support for Taiwan.
However, U.S. officials insist that their Taiwan policy has not changed and describe Pelosi's visit as routine.
"We believe that what China is doing here is not responsible. We believe that it is escalating tensions unnecessarily," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told National Public Radio on Thursday.
According to monitoring by the U.S. Naval Institute, a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Ronald Reagan, was operating earlier this week in the Philippine Sea, which lies southeast of Taiwan. The U.S. military has a routine presence in the region.
"The most important thing for us to communicate is a clear and steady message, both publicly and privately to China, that we are not going to be deterred or coerced from operating as we operate in the Western Pacific. And China needs to understand that," Sullivan said.
"We are not looking to escalate, but we are also not going to be deterred," he added.
In a statement, the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations expressed concern about China's "threatening actions" that risk "destabilizing the region."
"There is no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait. It is normal and routine for legislators from our countries to travel internationally," the statement added.