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TAIPEI, Taiwan — China unleashed a show of force against Taiwan on Thursday, firing missiles into the sea and threatening the island’s territorial waters in retaliation for Taipei’s hosting of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a contentious visit.

The military exercises have sent tensions in the Taiwan Strait spiking to the highest level in decades, raising the risk of a dangerous miscalculation in one of the world’s most charged geopolitical flash points.

As the maneuvers got underway, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said the Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carried out long-range, live-fire exercises and “precision strikes” on eastern parts of the strait. Taiwan’s defense ministry said the PLA fired “a number” of Dongfeng ballistic missiles into the waters off northeastern and southwestern Taiwan on Thursday afternoon.

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About 10 Chinese naval ships crossed the strait’s median line on Wednesday night and remained in that area through midday Thursday, while Chinese military aircraft also crossed the unofficial maritime boundary Thursday morning, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed source briefed on the developments. A day earlier, during Pelosi’s visit, 22 Chinese military aircraft breached the median line, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry.

Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week infuriated Chinese leaders, who claimed the high-level delegation was a violation of China’s territorial rights and a deliberate provocation amid deteriorating U.S.-China relations. In response, Chinese authorities announced military exercises in six areas around Taiwan, in what Taiwanese officials said was tantamount to a “sea and air blockade.”

China’s ruling Communist Party has never governed Taiwan, but Beijing claims the de facto independent democracy of 23 million people is an inalienable part of its territory and threatens to seize it by force.

The White House had urged China not to overreact, saying Pelosi’s trip did not signal any change in U.S. policy on Taiwan. But the Chinese military drills, to run through Sunday, represent Beijing’s efforts to overturn the status quo in the strait, establishing a new normal of encroachment on the island.

The Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, quoted an anonymous Chinese military expert describing the drills as a “new beginning” for PLA activities around Taiwan, which would not be limited to their previous areas and would instead “regularly take place on Taiwan’s doorstep.”

China in the past has used times of spiking geopolitical tension to alter previously accepted norms of military behavior. In 2012, during a standoff with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu, China launched coast guard patrols in the region which later became a regular feature of Chinese power projection.

The six exclusion zones in this week’s maneuvers affect Taiwan from all sides, and for the first time include an area to the east of the island — a way of demonstrating the military’s ability to target Taiwanese troops operating from bases in Hualien and Taitung.

“It’s quite clear they’re going to be simulating how they might blockade Taiwan in the future,” said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Crowds gathered on the island of Xiaoliuqiu, off the southern coast of Taiwan’s main island, to watch for signs of the Chinese exercises. Lu Li-shih, a former lieutenant commander in Taiwan’s navy, said the goal of conducting drills so close to Taiwan was to intimidate residents.

“If missiles fall into the sea near there, residents would be able to see,” he said.

Taiwanese officials said the island’s armed forces were operating as usual to monitor the surrounding areas. “We seek no escalation, but we don’t stand down when it comes to our security and sovereignty,” the defense ministry posted on Twitter.

The drills were taking place closer to Taiwan than retaliatory Chinese exercises during the last Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-1996. Three of the six exclusion zones encroach on the 12-nautical-mile littoral zone that Taiwan claims as its territorial waters.

During the 1990s incident, China fired missiles that landed near the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung, after Taiwan’s then-president Lee Teng-hui visited the United States.

This time, the crisis takes place at a sensitive time for Chinese President Xi Jinping as he prepares to take on a precedent-breaking third term at a crucial political meeting in the fall. The timing of the drills, after Pelosi’s departure from Taiwan, may signal Beijing’s desire to avoid direct confrontation with the United States.

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China’s response so far has avoided challenging the United States directly. “It’s been directed at Taiwan,” said Ivan Kanapathy, a former deputy senior Asia director on the White House National Security Council, who served in the Trump and Biden administrations.

“But if military planes come within 12 nautical miles, it’ll be hard to ask Taiwan to exercise restraint. They would be well within their rights to shoot at something within their territory,” he said.

Chinese military experts told CCTV that the exclusion zones were meant to show China’s ability to control the narrowest point of the Taiwan Strait, as well as the point where the Bashi Channel, south of Taiwan, meets the Pacific Ocean and shipping lanes that lead to the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung.

Meng Xiangqing, director of the Strategic Research Institute of the PLA-run National Defense University, described the approach as “closing the door and beating the dog.”

Meng explained the delay in starting drills as being a matter of international norms requiring 24 hours to alter shipping routes, rather than an attempt to avoid direct confrontation with the United States.

Nakashima reported from Washington. Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.

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