China's largest-ever military exercises encircling Taiwan kicked off Thursday, in a show of force in vital international shipping lanes. The performance follows a visit to the island by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi left Taiwan Wednesday after a trip that defied a series of stark threats from Beijing, which views the self-ruled island as its territory.
Pelosi was the highest-profile elected US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years, and said her trip made it "unequivocally clear" that the United States would not abandon a democratic ally.
The visit sparked a furious reaction from Beijing, which vowed "punishment" and announced military drills in the seas around Taiwan -- some of the world's busiest waterways.
The exercises, which began at 0400 UT, involve "live-firing", according to state media.
"Six major areas around the island have been selected for this actual combat exercise and during this period, relevant ships and aircraft should not enter the relevant waters and airspaces," state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The exercises will take place in multiple zones around Taiwan -- at some points within just 20 kilometres of the shore -- and will conclude at midday on Sunday.
Taiwan prepared for a war it does not want
Taiwan's defence ministry said it was closely watching the drills.
"The Ministry of National Defence stresses that it will uphold the principle of preparing for war without seeking war, and with an attitude of not escalating conflict and causing disputes," it said in a statement.
Beijing's state-run tabloid Global Times said, citing military analysts, that the exercises were "unprecedented" and that missiles would fly over Taiwan for the first time.
"This is the first time the PLA will launch live long-range artillery across" the Taiwan Strait, the newspaper said using the Chinese military's formal name, the People's Liberation Army.
The Group of Seven industrialised nations has condemned the drills, saying in a statement there was "no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait".
Drills are 'necessary and just'
Beijing has defended the drills as "necessary and just", pinning the blame for the escalation on the United States and its allies.
"In the current struggle surrounding Pelosi's Taiwan visit, the United States are the provocateurs, China is the victim," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing Wednesday.
A Chinese military source also told the AFP news agency the exercises would be staged "in preparation for actual combat".
"If the Taiwanese forces come into contact with the PLA on purpose and accidentally fire a gun, the PLA will take stern countermeasures, and all the consequences will be borne by the Taiwanese side," the source said.
Xi under pressure from ruling party
Taiwan's 23 million people have long lived with the possibility of an invasion, but that threat has intensified under President Xi Jinping, China's most assertive ruler in a generation.
The island is once again a flashpoint between the United States and a Chinese leadership keen to project strength ahead of a crucial ruling party meeting this autumn at which Xi is expected to be given an unprecedented third term.
"China's announced military exercises represent a clear escalation from the existing baseline of Chinese military activities around Taiwan and from the last Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996," said Amanda Hsiao, senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group.
"Beijing is signalling that it rejects Taiwan's sovereignty."