China's large-scale military exercises held earlier this month in areas encircling Taiwan in response to a high-profile U.S. visit to the democratic island have demonstrated Beijing's ability to target Japanese and U.S. troops based in the region and raised their alert level.

The drills, which included China firing ballistic missiles into Japan's exclusive economic zone, highlighted the need to avoid a major military conflict over Taiwan and boost defense for the Nansei Islands, a chain covering Japan's Okinawa and stretching southwest from Kyushu toward the self-ruled island, military experts said.

The Chinese military activities, prompted by the Taiwan visit by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also included repeated crossings by Chinese navy vessels and warplanes of the median line between the mainland and Taiwan, a boundary that has been respected by both sides for decades.

Screenshot taken from a WeChat post by the Chinese military's Eastern Theater Command on Aug. 11, 2022, shows a missile launch during a military exercise. (Kyodo)

Song Zhongping, a military commentator who taught at what is now the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force University of Engineering, said the drills were aimed at "frightening the Taiwan independence forces" as well as warning against external interference, including by U.S. and Japanese forces.

He said the drills' biggest benefit for China was being able to test the effectiveness of military scenarios it had drawn up directed toward the island. Taiwan and mainland China have been separately governed since they split due to a civil war in 1949, and communist Beijing has since endeavored to bring the island back into its fold, by force if necessary.

Noting that Yonaguni Island in Okinawa Prefecture, located about 110 kilometers from Taiwan, could be covered in any potential "Taiwan lockdown" operations by China aimed at isolating the island, Song warned against any attempt by Japan and the United States to meddle in cross-strait tensions.

"The PLA will certainly counter any bids by Japan and the United States to create two Chinas," he said.

James Schoff, a former senior adviser for East Asia policy at the U.S. Defense Department, said the latest Chinese drills showed "a significant improvement" from previous exercises as they involved missile launches and coordinated activities on land, water and in the air.

Schoff said he thinks the United States "still holds a technological and experience advantage" versus the Chinese military but "clearly overall, this situation highlights the need to try to avoid a major confrontation" over Taiwan.

As for the frequent crossings of the median line in the Taiwan Strait, he said China is using the visit of Pelosi, the third-highest-ranking U.S. official, as an excuse to set a new baseline of military pressure on Taiwan.

"I think China is potentially interested in trying to close down or take full control over the Taiwan Strait. Or they would like the U.S. to think that the Taiwan Strait is off limits to U.S. military in the future," Schoff said.

The U.S. expert said the landing of five Chinese ballistic missiles in Japan's EEZ was meant to "demonstrate and make tangible" the capability of China to strike Japanese targets, with the goal of discouraging Tokyo from allowing Washington to use bases located in its Asian ally for the defense of Taiwan.

The missile launches also showed Beijing's ability to protect from the mainland its forces in any operation to encircle Taiwan.

Rira Momma, director of the regional studies department at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies, said the drills conducted in six areas around Taiwan can be described as "the fourth Taiwan Strait crisis" following two in the 1950s and one in the mid-1990s. The latest exercises covered larger areas than the third crisis.

The drills including the missile firings raised awareness that "an emergency in Taiwan could lead to a contingency for Japan" and pointed to the need for Tokyo to "boost defense of the Nansei Islands so that China will not be able to freely operate" in the area, he said.

In light of China's coastal missile launching capability, Schoff also said it may be necessary for the United States to deploy some short- or medium-range missiles in Okinawa Prefecture and other areas of the Nansei Islands.

In a related move, Japanese government sources said recently that Tokyo estimates that it will need around 1,000 long-range standoff missiles in addition to its stockpile of anti-ballistic missiles as a defense against China's increasing military capabilities.

Schoff said he does not think U.S. forces should significantly increase their presence in Japan to brace for any Taiwan contingency as Washington has been exploring instead more flexibility in military deployment and integrated operations with Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

"We're waiting to see what Japan does with its national defense strategy because that could influence our decision," he added. Under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the Japanese government aims to update the National Security Strategy by the end of the year.

Momma said China will likely have recognized anew the difficulty of invading Taiwan after seeing Russian forces struggle in the Ukraine war, but added he believes Beijing might try to seize remote Taiwan islands under President Xi Jinping by 2027, when the PLA will mark the 100th anniversary of its founding.

Song also said there is a risk of a military conflict between Beijing and Washington if the United States "willfully provokes" China over Taiwan.

"Japan's land does not have strategic depth," he said, referring to a military term meaning the distance from the front line to vitally important areas such as capital cities. "Japan should not try to contain China following the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy."

Washington and Tokyo have been advocating the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region as a counter to China's assertiveness.

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