Top US commander calls China’s drills over Taiwan the ‘Gorilla in the room’ that must be contested

·4 min read

A top US commander has said that China’s military drills around Taiwan is a “gorilla in the room” that must be contested.

Beijing has been conducting massive drills by sea and air around the island this month following the visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. Tensions rose once more when the drills failed to deter a congressional delegation from visiting the Taiwanese capital of Taipei on Monday.

The exercises conducted by China included firing ballistic missiles into the sea surrounding Taiwan, an area with some of the most active shipping routes in the world. Not since the middle of the 1990s has China escalated tensions to such an extent.

In Singapore on Tuesday, Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Karl Thomas said that “it’s very important that we contest this type of thing. I know that the gorilla in the room is launching missiles over Taiwan,” according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“If we just allow that to happen, and we don’t contest that, that’ll be the next norm,” he told reporters. “It’s irresponsible to launch missiles over Taiwan into international waters ... where free shipping operates.”

The Seventh Fleet is based in Japan and is a major part of the US navy’s operations in the Pacific.

Chinese state media reported during the drills that some of the missiles fired followed a path above Taipei, an increase in tensions that Beijing hasn’t confirmed.

Admiral Thomas noted that Beijing has spent years building military bases in the South China Sea on a number of contested pieces of land, some manmade, while it was denying that it was doing so.

“If you don’t challenge it ... all of a sudden it can become just like the islands in the South China Sea [that] have now become military outposts,” he said, according to AFP. “They now are full functioning military outposts that have missiles on them, large runways, hangers, radars, listening posts.”

While the Chinese communist party has never run Taiwan, it still regards the island as its own territory. They have said that they will take the island at some point, using force if needed.

Tensions have increased under Xi Jinping, the president of China in office since 2013.

The US and its allies have increased the number of “freedom of navigation” journeys by vessels in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea to cement the notion that they are international waters, which has angered Beijing.

China said further drills were conducted on Monday during the visit from the US congressional delegation.

State media broadcast footage showing Taiwan’s Penghu islands that was reportedly filmed from Chinese jets, according to AFP.

Taiwan rejected the idea that China was close to the archipelago. The islands are the site of a large airbase and would be one of the first places under siege during a possible Chinese invasion.

“The CCP used cognitive warfare and other tricks to exaggerate and show that [its jet] was close to Penghu. This is not true,” Tung Pei-Lun of the Taiwan air force told the press on Tuesday.

Taiwan said it would conduct armed F-16 exercises on Wednesday night in the city of Hualien on the coast, a rare showing of its military ability.

Beijing announced sanctions on seven senior Taiwanese officials on Tuesday, calling them “diehard ‘independence’ separatists”, the Xinhua state news agency reported.

The sanctions are mainly aimed at members of the Democratic Progressive Party and were put in place because their actions “became all the more egregious” during Ms Pelosi’s trip to Taipei, according to Xinhua.

The people affected by the sanctions are barred from going to China, Hong Kong, and Macau, as well as being banned from doing business with any entities located in mainland China.

Taipei responded, saying that China was “trying to cause a chilling effect”. The de facto US envoy, Hsiao Bi-khim, was one of those sanctioned.

The Taiwanese public appears unfrightened by the drills, a poll revealed on Tuesday.

The Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation reported that 45 per cent said that they were not afraid at all and 33 per cent said they were not very afraid as a result of China’s military action. Those who said they were very afraid made up five per cent of respondents.