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China holds drills in Taiwan Strait as US seeks to ease ire over Pelosi trip

China holds military drills in the Taiwan Strait ahead of a possible visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (File photo)

China is conducting war games in the Taiwan Strait ahead of a possible visit to Taipei by Speaker of the US House of Representative Nancy Pelosi.

The live-fire military maneuvers on Saturday was announced via the Chinese state media a day earlier, raising the stakes ahead of the planned visit by Pelosi to the self-ruled island territory claimed by China.

"Live ammunition will be fired... between 8:00 am and 9:00 pm (0000-1300 GMT) and any entry (into these waters) will be prohibited," said the official statement.

The area where Saturday's maneuvers are taking place is located nearly 120 kilometers from the Taiwanese coast.

The drills will be limited in scope and will take place off the island of Pingtan in Fujian province, according to the statement that was reportedly issued on Thursday but not released by Chinese state media until Friday.

The development came as US President Joe Biden's administration sought on Friday to defuse heated Chinese warnings against Pelosi’s potential visit to Taipei as part of her East Asia tour intended to push Washington’s escalating measures to undermine Beijing in the region.

Pelosi -- who would be traveling on US military aircraft during her Asia tour – confirmed to reporters on Friday that she planned the provocative visit to Taiwan because of the Biden administration's "strong emphasis" on the Asia-Pacific region.

However, she pointedly refused to confirm that she would indeed visit the self-ruled island citing travel security considerations.

"I don't ever talk about my travels, because some of you know, it's a security issue," she said.

Pelosi raised fears late last week about “my plane getting shot down or something like that” after US officials were cited in a CNN report as saying that Biden had reflected the concerns of US military authorities that her trip to Taiwan “it’s not a good idea right now.”

"I think what the President was saying is that maybe the military was afraid of my plane getting shot down or something like that. I don't know exactly," Pelosi said.

Tensions have been simmering between the world's two biggest economies and growing geopolitical rivals over Taiwan with Chinese President Xi Jinping warning Biden in a phone call on Thursday that "those who play with fire will eventually get burned."

China views any visit by the top US legislator as a provocation, upsetting the tense status quo under which Washington formally recognizes China's sovereignty claim over the island -- while backing the Taipei government.

"We have many differences when it comes to Taiwan, but over the past 40-plus years, we have managed those differences and done it in a way that has preserved peace and stability and has allowed the people on Taiwan to flourish," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday.

"It would be important as part of our shared responsibility to continue to manage this in a wise way that doesn't create the prospect for conflict and keeping open lines of communication on this issue," he added.

Meanwhile, what China might actually do in case Pelosi moves ahead with her visit remains unclear.

A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said "a visit to Taiwan by Speaker Pelosi would challenge China's red line, and any challenge to our red line will no doubt be met with resolute countermeasures."

However, a commentator for China’s state-run Global Times newspaper called for intercepting Pelosi's plane.

"If US fighter jets escort Pelosi's plane into Taiwan, it is invasion. The PLA has the right to forcibly dispel Pelosi's plane and the US fighter jets, including firing warning shots and making tactical movement of obstruction. If ineffective, then shoot them down," wrote the daily’s columnist Hu Xijin.

Reacting to the escalating tensions, the spokesman for Biden's National Security Council, John Kirby, tried to play down what he described as "bellicose rhetoric," saying, "We've seen no physical, tangible indications of anything untoward with respect to Taiwan."

Claiming that there was no change in Washington’s policy of acknowledging Beijing's legal sovereignty over Taiwan, Kirby said that "there's no need" for China to react so harshly.

"The president believes it's really important to keep open lines of communication," Kirby said.

While Pelosi is a close political ally of fellow Democrat Biden, her diplomatic foray has put the president in a tricky position as he tries managing an increasingly high-stakes relationship with China.

Despite the tension, however, Biden and Xi agreed in their call Thursday to set up a first in-person summit at a still to be decided date.

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