The last time tensions soared between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, the US Navy sent warships through the Taiwan Strait and China could do nothing about it.
Those days are over.
China’s military has undergone a transformation since the mid-1990s when a crisis erupted after Taiwan’s president visited the US, prompting an angry reaction from Beijing.
“It’s a very different situation now,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. “It’s a much more contested and much more lethal environment for our forces.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, unlike his predecessors, now has serious military power at his disposal, including anti-ship missiles, a massive navy and an increasingly capable air force. This new military force is changing the strategic calculus for the US and Taiwan, raising the potential risks of a conflict or miscalculation, former officials and experts say.
During the 1995-96 crisis, in an echo of today’s tensions, China held live-fire military exercises, issued stern warnings to Taipei and fired missiles into waters near Taiwan.
But the US military responded with its biggest show of force since the Vietnam War, sending a number of warships to the area, including two aircraft carrier groups. The carrier Nimitz and other battleships sailed through the narrow waterway that separates China and Taiwan, driving home the idea of America’s military dominance.
“Beijing must know that the strongest military power in the western Pacific is the United States,” said then-Secretary of Defense William Perry.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) then was a low-tech, slow-moving force that was no match for the US military, with a flimsy navy and air force that couldn’t stray too far from China’s coastline, former and current US officials said. .
“They realized they were vulnerable, that the Americans could sail aircraft carriers right in their face and there was nothing they could do about it,” said Matthew Kroenig, who served as an intelligence and defense official under Bush, Obama and Trump. administrations.
The Chinese, taken aback by the US military’s display of high technology in the first Gulf War, “went to school in the American way of war” and began a concerted effort to invest in their military and — above all — to strengthen their position in the Straits of Taiwan, Kroenig said.
Beijing drew a number of lessons from the 1995-96 crisis, concluding that it needed satellite surveillance and other intelligence to spot adversaries over the horizon and a “blue water” navy and air force capable of sailing and flying in the western Pacific , according to David Finkelstein, director of China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at CNA, an independent research institute.
“The PLA navy has made remarkable progress since 1995 and 1996. It is truly impressive how quickly the PLA navy has been built. And of course in ’95-96, the PLA Air Force almost never flew over water,” said Finkelstein, a retired US Army officer.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described China’s dramatic rise as a military power as a strategic earthquake.
“We are witnessing, in my view, one of the greatest changes in global geostrategic power that the world has ever seen,” Milley said last year.
The Chinese military now is “very formidable especially in and around domestic waters, particularly in the Taiwan area,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former NATO commander.
China’s navy now has more ships than America’s, he said. Although the US Navy’s ships are larger and more advanced, with more experienced crews and commanders, “quantity has its own quality,” said NBC News analyst Stavridis.
China is currently building amphibious ships and helicopters to enable it to mount a potential full-scale invasion of Taiwan, experts say, although whether the PLA is capable of such a feat remains a matter of debate.
During the 1995-96 crisis, China lost contact with one of its missiles and left determined to wean itself off US-linked global positioning systems, Mathew said. Funaiole, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “It made them think, ‘We can’t rely on technology from other countries,'” he said.
Officials in the U.S. and Taiwan must now consider a far more lethal and agile Chinese military that can deny America the ability to deploy warships or aircraft with impunity, and even operate safely from bases in the region, Funaiole said. and other experts. .
“The game has changed in terms of how stacked the deck is for the US. It’s much more of an even game. Whatever the US does, China has options,” Funaiole said.
Angered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week, China has begun large-scale, live-fire military exercises, including ballistic missile launches, that have surpassed those carried out in the 1995-96 standoff. The exercises are located in waters surrounding Taiwan to the north, east and south, with some of the exercises located within about 10 miles of Taiwan’s coast. China once lacked the capacity to stage a major exercise in waters east of Taiwan, experts said.
China on Thursday fired at least 11 ballistic missiles near Taiwan, with one flying over the island, officials in Taipei said. Japan said five missiles landed in its economic exclusion zone, near an island south of Okinawa.
This time, the US government has not made any announcements about warships passing through the Taiwan Strait. “Biden could try to do that, but China could put them at the bottom of the strait. That’s something they couldn’t do in 1995,” Kroenig said.
The White House said Thursday that the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier will remain in the area as China conducts exercises around Taiwan to “monitor the situation.” But National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said a previously planned ICBM test was postponed to avoid any misunderstanding.
Despite tough rhetoric between the two powers and rising tensions, China is not seeking to start a war over Pelosi’s visit and is seeking to stage a show of force, not an invasion of Taiwan, former US officials and experts said.
For now, Chinese President Xi is focused on propping up his country’s sluggish economy and securing an unprecedented third term at the next Communist Party congress later this year. But China’s newfound military may cause overconfidence in Beijing’s decision-making or lead to a cycle of escalation in which each side feels compelled to respond to show resolve, former officials said.
There is a danger that Xi underestimates US resolve and that he believes there is a window of opportunity to occupy or blockade Taiwan in the next few years before US investment in new weapons changes the military balance, said Flournoy, now the Center’s chairman. . for a New American Security think tank.
“I worry that China is miscalculating because the narrative in Beijing continues to be one of US decline, that the US is turning inward,” Flournoy said. “This is very dangerous if you underestimate your potential opponent.”
To prevent such an outcome, Flournoy argues that both Taiwan and the US should strengthen their military forces to deter Beijing and increase the potential cost of any potential invasion or intervention against Taiwan.
Finkelstein said he worries about a chain of “action-reaction” events that could lead to a conflict no one wants, and that the risk of miscalculation in Beijing, Taipei and Washington is “sky-high.”
To keep a lid on tensions, the US and China must continue a vigorous dialogue to lower the temperature, he said. “We have to talk to each other all the time.”