China’s second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, is currently conducting an exercise in the western Pacific, just 200 nautical miles off Taiwan’s east coast. The deployment of the Shandong, China’s first domestically-built aircraft carrier, comes amid heightened tensions across the Taiwan Strait over a meeting between President Tsai Ing-wen and Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy. The meeting took place as Tsai returned from a trip to Belize and Guatemala, two of Taiwan’s 13 remaining diplomatic allies. The US has not had formal relations with Taiwan since 1979 but is the island’s most significant international supporter and arms supplier.
Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told reporters on Thursday that the Shandong was 200 nautical miles (370km) off Taiwan’s east coast. The Shandong sailed through the Bashi Channel south of Taiwan and into the Pacific on Wednesday with a number of other ships from the Chinese navy. China’s state-run Global Times said the deployment showed the Shandong was “fully ready for far sea operations and safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity”. State media say the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Eastern Theatre Command has been holding “intensive drills” on land, as well as in the sea and air over the past week. The Command covers China’s eastern coast.
The exercises come as Tsai met McCarthy in California, US in a stopover furiously condemned by Beijing, which claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own and has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island. McCarthy described Tsai as “a great friend to America”. At a press conference after their talks, McCarthy reiterated the close ties between the US and Taiwan. “The friendship between the people of Taiwan and America is a matter of profound importance to the free world, and it is critical to maintain economic freedom, peace and regional stability,” he said. Tsai, meanwhile, thanked McCarthy and other US legislators who joined the meeting.
“Their presence and unwavering support reassure the people of Taiwan that we are not isolated and we are not alone,” Tsai said, later adding: “We are stronger when we are together.” Beijing reiterated in a statement on Thursday that Taiwan was “the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations”, threatening “strong and resolute measures” in response to the McCarthy-Tsai meeting.
After his predecessor as House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan last August, China staged large-scale military drills that included firing missiles over and around the island. The Global Times reported unnamed experts saying the PLA was likely “to take countermeasures, including by holding large-scale and long-lasting drills around the island of Taiwan, and push forward the progress of national reunification”. There has been no official comment from Beijing on the presence of the Shandong in the Pacific.
The Shandong’s appearance also came as French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrived in Beijing for talks. The two are due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping later on Thursday. Taiwan’s defence ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that the island would not be intimidated and the military would continue to closely monitor the situation in the Taiwan Strait.