TCSS Security Commentaries #028

Latest military exercises have raised worries that China will normalize such drills and permanently station larger levels of military forces in the Fujian province across the Taiwan Strait.

Hugo Tierny, MoFA Taiwan Scholar

In response to US Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, China conducted military exercises in the Taiwan Strait from August 4. The unprecedented show of force has brought the world’s attention from Ukraine to the “Taiwanese pivot” to borrow Stéphane Corcuff’s formulation.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) exercises involved firing live ammunition within seven designated zones around Taiwan. The Chinese exercises aimed to demonstrate the shift in the balance of power in Beijing’s favor in recent years and the translation of PLA’s modernization into actual power projection capability.

Map depicting 2022 PLA drill zones (in red) compared with 1996 PLA exercise zones (in grey)
(Source: ChinaPower, CSIS)

According to China’s National Defense University Pr. Meng Xiang-qing, China hoped to achieve three objectives:

  • To showcase the ability of the PLA to approach Taiwan unchallenged;
  • To encircle Taiwan to demonstrate the PLA’s capability for a blockade and joint attack from all surrounding sides (i.e., not only from the western side); and
  • To signal the PLA’s capability to defeat the intervention of “external forces” (American or Japanese) in case of a conflict.;

Compared with 1996, China held exercises in seven drilling zones instead of two, and its “rocket force” (PLARF) fired more missiles with improved accuracy and greater distances. There was also an uptick in PLA Air Force incursions crossing the ‘median line’ of the Taiwan Strait.

Most importantly, the exercises have raised worries that China will normalize such drills and permanently station larger levels of military forces in the Fujian province across the Taiwan Strait. China could also use the pretext of another exercise, or an accident, to escalate, leaving Taiwan and its partners less warning time.

However, Beijing refrained from sending vessels into Taiwan’s territorial waters or aircraft into its airspace. China also divulgated advanced information regarding the exercises. The drills also did not have a serious impact on international traffic.

Restraint may be a way for Beijing to suggest that it can further escalate at the time of its choice. This contrasts with the rash conduct of its missile firing tests of 1996, which expressed more military bravado than actual capability.

Daily life continued unbothered in Taiwan. This does not mean the Taiwanese public is complacent about the threat, as it has become increasingly supportive of the defense sector after years of Chinese military harassment and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Taiwan’s military response was a non-escalator. It waited for China to end the first sequence of the drills to launch its series of land, air, and sea exercises, which the Ministry of National Defense (MND) insisted were routine and not held in response to China’s exercises.

Taiwan’s response followed habitual procedures: “scrambling combat air patrol (CAP), sent radio warnings, and deployed defensive missile systems to expel Chinese military planes and vessels.” Overall, it left the impression that while China showed off new strength and capabilities, Taiwan stuck to time-honored countermeasures.

The PLA drills also come as the Taiwanese military is amidst a debate about its defense posture. Each camp, one favoring asymmetry and the other conventional warfare, sees the validation of its preferred approach in the PLA. The Chinese military maneuvers had barely ended when a new delegation from Washington landed on the island, which led to China’s announcement of new military maneuvers.

As the Chinese analyst Shi Jiangtao (時殷弘) wrote right before Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, “China and the United States have established each side’s bottom line and are convinced that military conflict must be avoided until or unless it would be required absolutely.”

But China still demonstrated through the drills how the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait shifted to its advantage in recent years. These made clear that Beijing has not given up its ambitions by displaying its growing military power on an unprecedented scale.

The credibility of the PLA threat increases as the cross-strait power imbalance worsens. And given the antagonist goals pursued on each side of the Taiwan Strait, chances of conciliation are dim, and further confrontation remains likely.

Hugo Tierny is a Ph.D. candidate in military history and international relations at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE) and the Institut Catholique de Paris (ICP). He is the recipient of the MoFA Taiwan Fellowship-2022.