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CORRECTED-UPDATE 7-Biden 'concerned' as China extends military drills around Taiwan

·5 min read

(Corrects quote from Chinese foreign ministry in par 30 to 'waters off its own territory' not 'in our own waters')

By Sarah Wu and Martin Quin Pollard

TAIPEI, Aug 8 (Reuters) - China announced new military drills around Taiwan on Monday, eliciting concern from U.S. President Joe Biden, a day after the scheduled end of Beijing's largest exercises to protest last week's visit to the island by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

China's Eastern Theatre Command said it would conduct joint drills focusing on anti-submarine and sea assault operations - confirming the fears of some security analysts and diplomats that Beijing would keep pressure on Taiwan's defences.

Taiwan's foreign ministry condemned the move, saying China, which claims the self-governed island as its own, was deliberately creating crises. It demanded Beijing stop its military actions and "pull back from the edge".

"In the face of military intimidation created by China, Taiwan will not be afraid nor back down, and will more firmly defend its sovereignty, national security, and free and democratic way of life," the ministry said in a statement.

Biden, in his first public comments on the issue since Pelosi's visit, said he was not worried about Taiwan but was concerned about China's actions in the region.

"I'm concerned they are moving as much as they are," Biden told reporters in Delaware. "But I don't think they're going to do anything more than they are."

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre later condemned China's drills.

"We've been condemning them since they started escalating," Jean-Pierre said. "They are provocative, irresponsible and raise the risk of miscalculation. And that's what he - the president - was referring to."

VISIT ANGERS CHINA

Pelosi's visit infuriated China, which responded with test launches of ballistic missiles over Taipei for the first time, and ditching some lines of dialogue with Washington, including theatre military talks and on climate change.

Counter narcotics cooperation on illicit fentanyl trafficking was among the channels Beijing suspended, a move the head of U.S. drug control policy Rahul Gupta on Monday called "unacceptable".

The duration and precise location of the latest drills is not yet known, but Taiwan has already eased flight restrictions near the six earlier Chinese exercise areas surrounding the island.

Taiwan's defence ministry said it had detected 39 Chinese air force planes and 13 navy ships in and around the Taiwan Strait on Monday. Twenty-one Chinese air force planes had entered Taiwan's air defence zone, including fighter jets that crossed the median line in the northern part of the Taiwan Strait, the ministry said.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of the potential for miscalculation over tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

"Around us, a storm is gathering. U.S.-China relations are worsening, with intractable issues, deep suspicions, and limited engagement," Lee said in a televised address.

U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, however, told a briefing that the United States still believed it was unlikely China would try retake Taiwan militarily in the next few years, despite its actions in the past week.

Kahl said the U.S. military would continue to carry out passages through the Taiwan Strait in the coming weeks.

The Benfold destroyer sailed through the waterway separating China and Taiwan on July 19, and the U.S. military has been conducting such transits about once a month.

'DEEPLY TOUCHED'

Shortly before the latest drills were announced, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen met visiting St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, telling him she was moved by his determination to visit despite China's military pressure.

"Prime Minister Gonsalves has expressed in recent days that the Chinese military drills would not prevent him from visiting friends in Taiwan. These statements have deeply touched us," Tsai said at a welcome ceremony for Gonsalves in Taipei.

The Caribbean country is one of only around a dozen nations to have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan and not China.

It was unclear if Tsai had invited Gonsalves before or after Pelosi's visit. Taiwan's foreign ministry said it doesn't disclose internal planning or communications between governments.

Beyond the firing of 11 short-range ballistic missiles during the four earlier days of exercises, Chinese warships, fighter jets and drones manoeuvred extensively around the island.

Shortly before those drills ended on Sunday, about 10 warships each from China and Taiwan manoeuvred at close quarters around the unofficial median line of the Taiwan Strait, according to a person familiar with the situation who is involved with security planning.

A Chinese state television commentator said late on Sunday that the Chinese military would now conduct "regular" drills on the Taiwan side of the line.

MILITARY TALKS SHELVED

In Taipei, defence ministry spokesman Sun Li-fang told reporters that Taiwan's armed forces had "calmly" handled the Chinese drills. Earlier, the ministry had said the drills had used warships, aircraft and drones to simulate attacks on the island and its navy.

China's designated no-fly zones, and crossings of the median line, have "compressed" Taiwan's training space and will affect the normal operation of international flights and air routes in the future, the ministry said in a statement.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday that China was conducting normal military exercises "in waters off its own territory" in an open, transparent and professional way, adding that Taiwan was part of China.

China's defence ministry meanwhile maintained its diplomatic pressure on the United States, defending its shelving of some military-to-military talks.

"The current tense situation in the Taiwan Strait is entirely provoked and created by the U.S. side on its own initiative, and the U.S. side must bear full responsibility and serious consequences for this," defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian said in an online post.

"The bottom line cannot be broken, and communication requires sincerity," Wu said. (Reporting Sarah Wu in Taipei and Martin Pollard in Beijing; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Dover, Delaware, Idrees Ali in Washington, and Beijing newsroom; Writing by Greg Torode and Michael Martina; Editing by Nick Macfie, Peter Graff and Grant McCool)