Today's D Brief: Pelosi departs Taiwan; China announces live-fire drills; PACT Act heads to Biden's desk; E.Ky flood update; And a bit more.

Taiwan blockade in the works, or tough-guy posturing to save face? China’s military will begin several days of live-fire drills surrounding the island of Taiwan, beginning at noon local time Thursday and running through noon Sunday, in a bellicose and short-notice gesture widely seen as a direct response to the rare visit Tuesday by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif.  

Six areas around Taiwan have been declared “danger zones,” according to passenger airlines that received a warning overnight to avoid sending planes near the six blocks for drills, according to Bloomberg, reporting Wednesday. 

  • See for yourself: Review the live-fire zones via this map China’s defense ministry shared Tuesday after Pelosi landed in Taipei.

Historical echo: Compare those six blocks with six others China’s military similarly announced during the so-called “Third Taiwan Strait Crisis” in the mid-1990s, in a map shared by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s M. Taylor Fravel, here. (Others, like online mapmaker Nathan Ruser, have overlaid the most recent map with Taiwan’s approximate territorial waters to suggest this time China is much closer to sensitive ports and infrastructure than their six live-fire zones nearly three decades ago; the New York Times did much the same, and illustrated the approximate lines for Taiwan’s maritime border in relation to China’s warning zones, here.)

Taiwan’s military called China’s upcoming live-fire drills an “irrational action” that appears to be “a sea and air blockade of Taiwan,” according to The Telegraph. What’s more, “Some areas of the exercise invade [Taiwan’s] territorial waters,” the spokesman said Tuesday, and added that the exercise zones “endanger international shipping lanes, challenge the international order, undermine the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and endanger the region.” 

According to Beijing’s military, Pelosi’s visit this week was “a malicious provocation to create a crisis, which seriously violated the one-China principle” and “sent a serious wrong signal to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” the defense ministry said in a statement Tuesday. 

“The Chinese People's Liberation Army is on high alert and will launch a series of targeted military operations” to “resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and resolutely thwart external interference and ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist attempts,” according to the statement from Beijing. 

On Tuesday, China also sent 21 aircraft on their usual nearly-daily excursions entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone from the southwest, according to the defense ministry in Taipei. But Tuesday’s demonstration was a far cry from the 52 aircraft China used on October 4, drawing global attention to the wider matter of Taiwan’s near-independence in the face of Beijing’s possessive tendencies regarding the island of nearly 24 million people; see, e.g., Reuters coverage around that time here and here. (Other notable recent Taiwan ADIZ penetrations from the Chinese air force include 22 aircraft on the 23rd of June, 29 on the 21st of June, 30 on May 30, 39 on Jan. 23, and 27 on Nov. 28.)

Pelosi herself was undeterred, telling reporters in Taipei, “that there are certain insecurities on the part of the president of China as to his own political situation that he's rattling a saber, I don't know. But it doesn't really matter. What matters to us is that we salute the successes of Taiwan, we work together for the security of Taiwan, and we just take great lessons from the democracy of Taiwan.”

Meanwhile at the White House: “We are prepared to manage what Beijing chooses to do,” National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told reporters Tuesday. “At the same time, we will not engage in saber-rattling,” he said. 

“We will continue to operate in the seas and the skies of the western Pacific, as we have done for decades,” said Kirby. And, “We will continue to support Taiwan, defend a free and open Indo-Pacific, and seek to maintain communication with Beijing.”

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Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad and Jacqueline Feldscher. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 2019, a 21-year-old white nationalist entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and killed 23 people and wounded 23 others, including children. The shooter now faces 90 federal charges, including 22 counts of committing a hate crime that resulted in death; his trial still has no date. 

Kentucky flood update: Destruction related to steady rains in and around eastern Kentucky have now claimed the lives of at least 37 people, which is more than the official death toll of the so-called “Great Flood of 1993,” which we highlighted on Monday. Nearly a week of rain brought well over a foot of precipitation to the region, bursting the Kentucky river and sweeping away cars and portions of folks’ homes across that part of Appalachia.
Eight different “cooling centers” have been set up for displaced residents, and you can find the list and addresses for those, here. Dozens of people are still missing or unaccounted for, and so the death toll may continue to rise, Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday.
An estimated 580 people have been rescued by the Kentucky National Guard so far, according to Lt. Col. Carla Raisler, who corresponded with on Tuesday. “As the National Guard, we are conducting a joint mission using both Army and Air resources and capabilities and also reaching across state lines to West Virginia and Tennessee for assistance,” she said. A bit more, here.

Lastly: After a week of Republican opposition and several days of veterans protesting on the steps of Capitol Hill, the PACT Act is finally headed to the president’s desk. The Senate finally passed the bill Tuesday night to help veterans who were exposed to burn pits while deployed.
It was seemingly another significant victory for the White House this week. But Defense One’s Jacqueline Feldscher reports that President Joe Biden’s work on the issue, which is very personal to him, began before he even took office. Tom Porter, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Feldscher that his staff met with members of Biden’s landing team at least four times before inauguration day to discuss how Biden could support advocates’ efforts. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also shared that he saw the president’s passion for this issue first hand when he visited the White House for a bill signing early in the administration.
“We had a very personal moment,” Takano said. “He asked me if I had read his book and I told him I hadn’t.…He said, ‘Read the book. There’s a chapter on Beau,’” the president said, referencing Biden’s son, who the president believes developed fatal cancer after exposure to a burn pit. “I had a feeling then that if we brought this bill to the place where we could bring it to the floor, that we had a partner in the president. That was very important,” said Takano. Read more about the bill’s passage from Military Times, here.