China’s Huge Exercises Around Taiwan Were a Rehearsal, Not a Signal, Says Oriana Skylar Mastro

Nancy Pelosi’s visit was more pretext than provocation.
A Taiwanese F-5 fighter jet is seen after taking off from Chihhang Air Base on August 06, 2022 in Taitung, Taiwan. A Taiwanese F-5 fighter jet is seen after taking off from Chihhang Air Base on August 06, 2022 in Taitung, Taiwan. Taiwan remained tense after U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's visit to the island as part of a tour of Asia aimed at reassuring allies in the region. China has been conducting live-fire drills in waters close to those claimed by Taiwan in response. Annabelle Chih/ Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared in The Economist.

In the afternoon of August 4th, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) kicked off the largest and most sophisticated military exercises it has ever conducted. Over the course of a week, the Chinese launched dozens of missiles and conducted drills near Taiwan with 100 aircraft, ten destroyers and support vessels. Submarines and aircraft carriers also played a role. The display has made the third Taiwan Strait crisis, which occurred between 1995-96, when China conducted four rounds of tests over the course of several months, with barrages of no more than six missiles, look like child’s play.

Part of the rationale for the latest exercise was to signal Beijing’s anger over Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Ms Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, was the highest-ranking American government official to visit the island since 1997. Back then Newt Gingrich, who was also the House speaker, made the trip. China warned that if Ms Pelosi added Taipei to her itinerary, there would be hell to pay.

The exercise is also a bit of a “coming-out party” for Beijing. In 1996 the third crisis ended when America sent two aircraft-carrier strike groups within 200 miles (322km) of Taiwan. America saw this as a great strategic success, and Chinese leaders were unhappy with its interference in what China considers a domestic affair. The resentment helped to drive China to build the PLA into one of the greatest armed forces in the world.

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Compared with 1996, China’s forces today are barely recognizable. Back then it had a large army, with roughly 4m people, but that was a sign of its backwardness more than anything else. With obsolete equipment and poor training, China barely had what could be considered an air force and a navy. Its pilots could not fly over water, at night or in rough weather. In 1999 less than 2% of its fighters were fourth generation, just 4% of its attack submarines were classed as modern (nuclear powered, for example) and none of its surface ships was. Its navy was a glorified coastguard with ships that, lacking air-defense systems, had to hug the coastline on any patrol. Its nuclear weapons, solid-fuelled and housed mainly in fixed silos, could have been taken out in one fell swoop by America.

Now China’s armed forces are comparable to America’s in quality and quantity. Most of its platforms are modern (of the latest technology for the relevant domain) and it boasts the largest navy in the world. In some areas, Chinese military capabilities already surpass America’s—in shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air-defense systems. China possesses the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, one that is currently undergoing major modernization.

Chinese leaders knew the PLA had to conduct a series of large, realistic exercises to identify issues and hone their capabilities. If China had done so out of the blue, instead of using Ms Pelosi’s visit as a pretext, international opprobrium would have been stronger.

But even with all these improvements, it is unclear whether China could take Taiwan by force. China has not fought a war since 1979, when it made heavy weather of a “punitive” invasion of Vietnam. An amphibious attack, and to a lesser degree a blockade of the type the exercises off Taiwan were simulating, would demand complex joint operations (involving army, air force and navy), which in turn require impeccable logistics and command and control. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, launched a massive organizational reform to improve in these areas, and the PLA undoubtedly has. But the war in Ukraine may have given him heightened anxiety, given that the Russians struggled precisely with logistics and command.

For this reason, we should see the massive exercises off Taiwan less as a signal, and more as a rehearsal for combat. Mr Xi wants progress on the Taiwan issue, and domestically talk in the press is shifting from peaceful reunification to armed reunification. Chinese leaders knew the PLA had to conduct a series of large, realistic exercises to identify issues and hone their capabilities. If China had done so out of the blue, instead of using Ms Pelosi’s visit as a pretext, international opprobrium would have been stronger.

China will seize the opportunity to practice as much as possible. It has announced already that this round of exercises will continue and that another round in the Bohai Gulf/Yellow Sea is next. And it won’t just be large-scale exercises. It is unlikely that Beijing will return to its previous level of operations. Instead, China might attempt to normalize greater Chinese activity around Taiwan. That makes war more probable. Through a series of exercises the PLA, and the party leadership, might gain confidence that China’s forces are ready to take Taiwan sooner than they would otherwise have thought.

Of course, this all depends on how the exercises and operations go. From the outside, this is hard to assess. The missiles landed where they should have in recent days, and there were no accidents. But we don’t know how much and how well different groups are communicating with each other. To prepare for joint operations, air-force units need to operate in close proximity and coordinate with ground troops and amphibious elements. The PLA needs to practice providing supplies, such as prepositioned fuel stocks, and bringing munitions and medical supplies to forward locations such as Fujian, the province directly across the Taiwan Strait.

This is where the real trouble lies. If activities in the vicinity of Taiwan become more routine, not only does this heighten anxiety in Taipei (and probably other regional capitals as well) but it helps to disguise any preparations for a real military campaign. China needs an element of surprise to be able to take Taiwan before America has time to mobilize adequate forces in the region to defend the island. If China’s forces are simulating formations, blockades, attacks, and amphibious landings, it will be harder to decipher when they are preparing for the real thing. Ms Pelosi’s visit has allowed Beijing to move to a new level of military activity unchallenged, which will make it harder for America to defend Taiwan. No signal of America’s commitment to the island can fix that.

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