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China ends series of live fire military drills around the island of Taiwan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

China says some of the live-fire military exercises in the waters around the island of Taiwan, which were supposed to end Sunday, will now continue on a regular basis. So far, the drills have disrupted traffic in what's normally a busy international transit point, highlighting how important geopolitically Taiwan is. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Earlier this week, some Chinese beach holiday-goers were unexpected witnesses to a geopolitical crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANKS ROLLING)

FENG: Chinese vacationers captured this video that shows tanks rolling across beaches in China's Fujian province.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILES FLYING)

FENG: Other Chinese tourists filmed these Chinese missiles being launched in the direction of Taiwan. Taiwan's defense ministry said 11 of those missiles landed in waters around the island.

TAYLOR FRAVEL: Anywhere from four to five missiles launched from the Chinese mainland sort of flew over the island itself, which I think has quite a significant kind of psychological impact and is quite provocative.

FENG: That's Taylor Fravel, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the Chinese military. The last time China's army, or the PLA, held such significant drills next to Taiwan was in March 1996. But the exercises last week were much bigger and much closer to Taiwan, showcasing how far China's Navy and Air Force have come along. Also, in 1996, China's military drills were only designed to simulate an attack on Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait.

FRAVEL: Whereas today, what we're seeing is the PLA engaging in sort of - or exercising blockade operations, namely how it would use its sort of naval forces and its air forces, perhaps in conjunction with its missiles, to try to choke off Taiwan from international commerce.

FENG: The CEO of Maersk, the international shipping giant, noted last week the Taiwan Strait was one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. If it were to close, he said, it would have a dramatic impact on shipping capacity. Taiwan-based analyst Amanda Hsiao, who works for the International Crisis Group there, says two of China's military drill zones this week also target north and south Taiwan, where Chinese troops would land if they invaded.

AMANDA HSIAO: These exercise areas also cover entry points to the ports at both Keelung and Kaohsiung, and combined, those two ports handle more than half of the cargo that come in and out of Taiwan.

FENG: Taiwan's biggest export is advanced semiconductor chips, some of which can only be made in Taiwan. A real Chinese blockade of the island would threaten the world's supply of advanced electronic components we need for our devices, cars and military assistance.

HSIAO: The overall political objective is really to influence the calculations of decision-makers in both the U.S. and Taiwan going forward.

FENG: Luckily, an actual blockade did not happen, and transport so far has not been substantially interrupted. Regional airlines in China and Korea had to cancel some flights, and some ships were carefully rerouted last week. Political scientist Wen-ti Sung at Australian National University says China's leader Xi Jinping played the last week carefully, a calculated drumbeat of force to show off China's military strength.

WEN-TI SUNG: But at the same time, seeing Xi, we really need stability at the moment, and that's why he doesn't really have a going to war option as well because war will be the biggest risk of the stability.

FENG: Those constraints likely mean war is not imminent in the Taiwan Strait. But China has shown it has the ability and the will to cut off Taiwan from the world and the world from Taiwan if it wants, and that's a scary message. Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.