The dozens of warplanes flying daily over the center line of the Taiwan Strait and the warships prowling the waters off the coast represent a significant and disturbing change from the status quo, and one that could have enormous consequences for defense. of Taiwan in the future, according to experts. and officials said.
Pushing these fighter jets over the line not only erases the previous boundary, but doing it in coordination with warships and staying clear of missiles flying nearby is exactly the type of real-time interaction that modern militaries spend so much time and effort perfecting. , and baffled the Russians in Ukraine. Aligning these systems, while observing Taiwan’s reaction, would provide critical insights into Beijing’s capability and readiness should it launch military strikes against Taiwan or US interests in the Pacific.
Chinese military planners are no doubt soaking up the backlash to their efforts, as Taiwan activates missile defense radars and moves troops and equipment around the island, giving Beijing key insights into how Taipei could react in times of war.
Previous Chinese drills have been “like driving a new car a lot, instead of taking it out on the freeway,” said Randy Schriver, who served as the Pentagon’s top Asia policy official in the Trump administration. “The coordinated island bracketing is the kind of exercise that will be more applicable to an actual strike.”
So far, the United States has publicly held back, saying very little about the exercises while keeping its Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group in the region but not near Taiwan. The amphibious ship USS Tripoli is near Okinawa and the amphibious ship USS America is in the East China Sea. Both carry F-35 fighters.
More significant will be insights into how China deploys and uses its forces. It will likely be an “intelligence boon”, which could provide insight into the “strengths and weaknesses of PLA mobilization”, said Collin Koh, a researcher at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore.
These previews “would offer a better picture of how the PLA might in the future pursue an invasion of Taiwan, or more generally how it would conduct a major military campaign”, than any long-planned exercise. on the Chinese mainland, Koh added.
Defense officials said the military was closely monitoring the drills, but generally remained silent on Chinese actions. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has said repeatedly this week that the United States is not looking for conflict with China.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during a trip to Cambodia on Friday, said “there is no justification for this extreme, disproportionate and escalating military response”, adding that the Chinese measures “constitute a significant escalation” in the region.
While the Chinese military has tested its missiles for years, their launch crews have never worked in an operational scenario where they must grapple with the complexities of military and commercial air and sea traffic, and ensure that their missiles can pass through populated civilian areas and land safely in designated waters.
Ahead of the live-fire drills this week, Beijing unveiled a map of six areas where it plans to conduct the drills, forming a virtual ring around Taiwan. After the drills began on Thursday, the military launched at least 11 ballistic missiles, which hit the waters to the northeast, east and southeast of the island. Some landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and one flew directly over Taiwan, an unprecedented action.
On Friday, China sent 30 fighter jets across the median line that bisects the Taiwan Strait, according to Taiwan’s defense ministry. The move “jeopardized the status quo of the strait,” the agency tweeted, noting that Taipei had responded by jamming planes and ships, as well as activating surveillance and anti-aircraft warfare. missile systems.
“We condemn such actions which have disrupted our airspace and surrounding waters and continue to ensure our democracy and freedom free from threats,” the ministry tweeted.
The drills may be designed as intimidating, but the highly choreographed and coordinated movements are much more complex than previous shows of force, Schriver said.
“It’s multiple shots targeted at different closure areas timed in a particular way, so it more closely resembles if they were actually going to use missiles to hit Taiwan,” he said.
For the Chinese, the drill is also a chance to find out if Taiwan’s air defenses were able to resume missile launches and how Taiwan’s civil defenses would react to an attack, Schriver said.
“They would probably know, did the Taiwan air defenses spot us? Did they light us up with fire control radar? ” he said.
The drills provided an opportunity not only to test whether their missiles can hit their targets in an operational scenario, but also whether Chinese ships and planes can effectively blockade the island through their military movements.
The last time China moved to this extent around Taiwan was in 1996, when Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait after it was angered by Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States to give a speech on the democratization of the island.
But today’s modernized Chinese military barely resembles the force of 1996, boasting new missiles, the world’s largest navy, two aircraft carriers and fighter jets that rival the F -16 Taiwanese and American jet aircraft.
“The PLA couldn’t do any of that then,” said Lonnie Henley, a senior lecturer at George Washington University and a former defense intelligence officer for East Asia.
“The things the PLA does are perfectly routine things for the PLA these days,” Henley added. “They’re doing them all at once around Taiwan, instead of spreading them out over a period of a few months in multiple training areas across the East China Sea and the South China Sea.”
But Taiwan has not been sitting idly by either over the past few decades. For years it has been buying American F-16 fighters and other equipment, and in late 2020 it struck a wave of arms deals with Washington for highly sophisticated systems to make island a “porcupine” to better deter or resist a Chinese invasion. The deals included four armed MQ-9B drones, eleven high-mobility artillery rocket systems — the same weapon Ukraine has made a household name for — and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
But Taiwan and the US military are now seeing, for the first time, an indication of what they may soon have to contend with.
Decades of carefully planned training exercises are very different from rapid military operations in unpredictable environments, and this latest crisis gives China its closest touch to the real world and its complications. Rapid reaction drills “allow the PLA to test and validate the results of its modernization efforts” and reforms carried out over the past decades,” Koh said.
“This latest Taiwan Strait crisis provides an opportunity to assess their capabilities and identify weaknesses to work on,” he added. “The PLA is likely to glean a lot about itself in the process.”