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China isn’t yet ready to use military force against Taiwan

At 10.00 p.m. local time on Aug. 2, 2022, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taipei, the highest-ranking U.S. politician to do so for 25 years. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) angrily announced via its Xinhua news agency that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would conduct military areas in six areas encircling Taiwan, between 12 noon on Aug. 4 to 12 noon on Aug. 7, including live-fire exercises.

The PLA’s Eastern Theater Command then announced joint air and sea exercises in the Taiwan Strait and in the waters around the island, including the firing of long-range ammunition. The exercises are widely seen as a shock tactic and deterrent sparked by Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and China styles them as a warning to supporters of “Taiwan independence.”

The six areas encircled Taiwan on all sides, bringing PLA forces closer to the island than previous exercises during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, and even encroaching on Taiwan’s territorial waters in some places.

On the morning of Aug. 3, Taiwan’s ministry of defense held an online news conference, at which it strongly condemned the exercises as a de facto air and sea blockade, a serious violation of the island’s territorial waters and as inimical to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and endangering international shipping lanes and regional security.

Their initial analysis was that the CCP was using this show of force to intimidate Taiwan, and as a form of psychological warfare against its people. So the ministry announced it would prepare for war without seeking or avoiding it, and vowed not to escalate the conflict. It said the island’s military would step up vigilance and counter any aggression.

Currently, Taiwan’s combat readiness training is continuing as it had been before, and there have been no recalls of officers or soldiers on leave.

The United States remains on high alert, and is expected to respond to China’s large-scale military exercises and economic coercion against Taiwan.

John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, said in a regular White House media briefing on Aug. 2 that Beijing has no reason to turn this visit, which is in line with long-term U.S. policy, into some kind of crisis, or use it as an excuse for increased aggression and military activity targeting Taiwan.

Sailors direct an EA-18G Growler attached to the Shadowhawks of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 141 on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in the Philippine Sea, Aug. 2, 2022. Credit: U.S. Navy
Sailors direct an EA-18G Growler attached to the Shadowhawks of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 141 on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) in the Philippine Sea, Aug. 2, 2022. Credit: U.S. Navy


Kirby said the U.S. side expects China to continue to respond for a longer period of time [than in 1996], but gave no further details, adding that the U.S. doesn’t want a crisis and will seek to manage the situation and not fall into conflict with China.

In other words, the United States has achieved its goal [with Pelosi’s visit], meaning that there is no need to irritate Beijing further, and that the situation, while tense, is generally under control.

The exercises began after Pelosi left Taiwan, so as to avoid direct confrontation with the U.S. military; a kind of deterrent after the fact to save Beijing from admitting defeat, and to prevent other countries from following suit. Without it, China’s “one-China” principle [by which it claims Taiwan as its territory], could have faced unprecedented levels of challenge from the international community, opening the door for Taiwan to increase its presence on the world stage. It was a face-saving exercise by the CCP aimed at mollifying rising nationalism at home.

The current situation is different from the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, which lasted for during months, with seven waves of military exercises by the PLA, and amid plans to capture Taiwan’s outer islands of Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu. The current exercise encircles Taiwan on four sides … and is more obviously aimed at the United States, particularly the conventional missile test launches in the waters east of Taiwan. This arrangement helps prevent the U.S. military from intervening in the Taiwan Strait.

The most eye-catching part of this exercise, and likely its biggest deterrent effect, lies in the test launch of conventional missiles. Some missiles were fired east of Taiwan, and passed through Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), before landing in Japanese economic exclusion zone. Will this trigger a chain reaction in security cooperation between the U.S. and Japan? This will be the focus of attention in the next few days.

All six of the PLA’s military training zones fall within Taiwan’s ADIZ, while the areas off Keelung and Kaohsiung overlap with Taiwan’s territorial waters, meaning parts of them are less than 12 nautical miles (about 22 kilometers) off the Taiwanese coast, in a direct challenge to Taiwan’s sovereignty and in line with what the United Nations terms “national aggression.”

Research indicates the PLA’s naval and air forces will conduct long-range live ammunition shooting outside the Taiwan defense zone and will not risk approaching Taiwan’s territorial waters. The incursion into Taiwan’s territorial waters seems intended as a psychological deterrent to Taiwan. It’s not out of the question that small amounts of ordinance could find their way into Taiwan’s territorial waters, and if they do, this could present new issues for Taiwan around how to respond.

With the exercises taking place in Taiwan’s ADIZ, the median line of the Taiwan Strait disappears. The appearance of part of the exercise area in Taiwan’s territorial waters compresses the depth of Taiwan’s defense to its minimum range, posing fresh challenges to the island’s military.

Taiwan Air Force Mirage fighter jets taxi on a runway at an airbase in Hsinchu, Taiwan, Friday, Aug. 5, 2022. China says it summoned European diplomats in the country to protest statements issued by the Group of Seven nations and the European Union criticizing threatening Chinese military exercises surrounding Taiwan. Credit: AP
Taiwan Air Force Mirage fighter jets taxi on a runway at an airbase in Hsinchu, Taiwan, Friday, Aug. 5, 2022. China says it summoned European diplomats in the country to protest statements issued by the Group of Seven nations and the European Union criticizing threatening Chinese military exercises surrounding Taiwan. Credit: AP

PLA thinking and capabilities

In terms of sea and air force, the PLA’s H-6K bombers can mount Changjian-20 land-attack cruise missiles and Yingjing-12 supersonic anti-ship missiles. The role of unmanned aerial vehicles has also attracted attention as the traditional combat style of the PLA is seen to evolve.

During the three-day live-fire period, how were the PLA Navy and Air Force and the Rocket Force deployed? Did troops from other theaters take part in the exercises in batches? Were live rounds fired simultaneously in the six drill areas each day, or will they be divided into batches? All of these details can help to reveal the PLA’s military thinking and joint combat capabilities.

During the Taiwan Strait Crisis from 1995 to 1996, the PLA launched seven waves of military exercises spanning eight months, delineating a combat procedure for attacking Taiwan that was based on missile attacks and early sea and air operations to seize air, sea, and electromagnetic supremacy. The three stages of the joint landing operation were aimed at developing a missile blockade, followed by air and sea supremacy, and finally by an amphibious landing operation. The aim was to try out the PLA’s combat plan against Taiwan, so it could be revised, as well as to show that China has the capacity to win a local war in the era of high-tech military combat.

Back then, the PLA tested 10 DF-15 ballistic missiles outside China’s territorial waters for the first time, generating a series of calculations regarding the targeting of DF-15s, as well as the “Second Artillery Force Conventional Missile Assault Campaign” guidelines on the use of conventional firepower and conventional combat command procedures.

I believe that the current PLA exercises have the same aim. It has been nearly seven years since CCP leader Xi Jinping first launched his military reform programs encompassing leadership and command structures, reorganization of existing forces, as well as the addition of a large number of updated weapons and equipment. The current exercises could be described as a test of that reform program.

The PLA has been keen to develop its joint operations capabilities in recent years, bringing out new joint operations guidelines in November 2020, the fifth iteration of the PLA combat regulations.

In February 2021, the Central Military Commission issued a document titled “Decision on Building a New Military Training System”, focusing on training innovations and the standardization of training content. These are only the latest developments in a military reform program that has only just begun.

Now, the PLA will be looking to develop a new joint combat strategy during the live-fire period, a challenging task. This will be the best opportunity for the rest of the world to scrutinize and analyze its true combat capabilities in the wake of military reforms.

Inevitable confrontation

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the United States’ focus on competition with China, the CCP is bound to be reassessing all aspects of a potential military invasion of Taiwan. However, in the current international climate, countering the strategic containment by the U.S.-led maritime alliance is more pressing a task than a military invasion of Taiwan. That’s why these exercises are focused on deterrence and shaping favorable strategic positions, while at the same time preventing the situation from escalating. China isn’t yet at the stage where it is ready to use military force against Taiwan.

Most of the CCP leadership, including Xi Jinping, believe that confrontation with Western hostile forces is inevitable due to irreconcilable differences in their ideology and social systems, and that neither side will succeed in changing the other. So China prepares.

In his speeches for a domestic audience, Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that China is at a critical stage where it needs to develop from being a simply large nation to being a strong one, adding that such transitions are often high-risk periods for national security.

He has also warned that other powers, mostly the United States, are increasingly striving to contain China, creating large numbers of uncertainties in potential flashpoints around China, meaning that the likelihood of conflict on China’s doorstep has greatly increased.

Xi says China must be brave and not afraid to show its strength in the face of stronger powers, but should also pay attention to strategic needs, use both hard and soft tactics, and strive for unity, cooperation and mutually beneficial situations.

He has said that any method should be reasonable, beneficial and restrained, pay attention to the current state of the economy, manage and control risks, and strive for maximum benefits at the least cost.

So it may not be the case that the CCP will try to unify Taiwan by force at all costs, or that Xi Jinping is desperate to achieve this for his historical legacy. It would be better for China to temporarily let go of the idea of taking Taiwan by force, if such a move would delay or interrupt China’s rise as an international power.

So the CCP could well retreat … without the need for a full-scale showdown. While these exercises around Taiwan seem full of murderous intent, they are essentially a form of shock tactic, a psychological deterrent.  

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.