Four days of exercises around Taiwan offered a rare glimpse of China’s progress toward its goal of prevailing in any major conflict, including the US in a possible war over the island.
Years ago, President Xi Jinping pledged to transform China’s military into a world-class military force that could dominate the Asia-Pacific. The just-concluded drills allowed the world to see how far China’s military has come since it last fought – a failed 1979 attempt to defeat Vietnam in a three-week border conflict. While the Chinese military was participating in exercises this time, rather than an actual conflict, the exercises served as a dress rehearsal for any military operations.
The drills included fighter and bomber sorties, along with naval maneuvers, and marked the first time China had fired missiles over the island of Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army said on Sunday it had conducted joint training in waters and airspace near the island to test its ability to strike ground targets and engage in long-range aerial combat.
Overall, military analysts said, the drills showed evidence of how China would approach an invasion of the Taiwan Strait, one of the most dangerous flashpoints of the 21st century, and signaled a new seriousness of intent emerging from its plan Mr. Xi to turn the country’s sprawling military industrial complex into a cohesive fighting force.
“The ability to conduct joint operations around Taiwan has been the driving force behind China’s military strategy and force modernization for more than two decades,” said M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on the Chinese military at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also noted that the drills were one of the few times China has provided so many details about an exercise. “We should not be surprised by what the PLA does, how it does it, or what it has accomplished.”
Early signs that Beijing can coordinate different branches of the armed services, Mr. Fravel added, are a success for the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, the main regional command responsible for Taiwan that was created in a 2016 military reorganization. to improve the ability to conduct joint operations.
The drills began as an angry Chinese government protested a visit to Taipei earlier last week by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The drills began at noon on Thursday in six zones that effectively encircle Taiwan. Several of the zones face the island’s largest commercial ports and overlap what Taipei claims as its territorial waters, reaching within 12 miles of its coastline in what some military analysts have compared to a temporary blockade.
All major services participated in the drills, according to Chinese press reports, including the army, navy, air force, missile force, and support and logistics forces.
The US is Taiwan’s long-standing security partner and is bound by law to ensure that Taiwan can defend itself. For decades, the US has maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity, not saying whether it will directly intervene in a conflict. Although the White House says the policy has not changed, President Biden said the US would defend Taiwan if China tried to invade. For its part, Beijing saw Ms. Pelosi’s visit as another sign of the US backtracking on earlier pledges to limit ties with the island.
As of late last week, PLA officials have not returned calls from their Pentagon counterparts, the Pentagon said.
“The DPRK chose to overreact and use the President’s visit as a pretext to increase provocative military activity in and around the Taiwan Straits,” acting Pentagon spokesman Todd Brasill said in a statement. “Part of this overreaction is severely limiting its defense commitments when any responsible nation would recognize that we need them most now.”
US defense officials have said it will be weeks before they finish analyzing all the information they have learned from watching China’s drills, particularly how its navy maneuvers and commands its ships while conducting joint operations with its air force.
In addition to the aerial inspection, the US kept an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, and its escort ships in the area throughout the exercises.
A Beijing-backed group, the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, said on its Twitter account that the US deployed surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to the area, including RC-135s, P-8s and E-3s, with KC tankers -135. hand for air refueling. The Pentagon declined to comment.
Military analysts say that while China developed some of its latest weapons for the exercises, there did not appear to be any military hardware that was not already known. And some said China did not use enough ships to show it could prevent shipping traffic from reaching Taiwan.
Instead, it used ships such as destroyers and cruisers during the exercise, which are not ideal for conducting a blockade, naval observers said. Although exercising with up to 50 ships, the Chinese navy did not use enough smaller, more maneuverable ships, such as frigates, that could better maintain something like a blockade around Taiwan, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. .
“What we saw during the exercise is that China did not use enough ships to divert those coming in, inspect or detain them and cut off access to Taiwan’s ports. They have enough to quickly inspect incoming ships and slow down Taiwan’s economy,” Mr Clarke said. “This was more like a quarantine demonstration than showing that they can cut off Taiwan. But for China, it would be a good first step.”
Christopher Twomey, associate professor of national security affairs at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said potentially useful information that could be gained from the exercises included assessments of how missile brigades coordinated with each other and conducted assessments of combat damage from strikes. Such information could be obtained from intercepted communications, he said.
“Probably the US intelligence community is getting a lot of material from these activities from classified sources about ‘under the weeds’ capabilities and operational practices,” Mr Twomey said.
Several close observers of the Chinese military noted that the drills were far from a full-scale rehearsal for an invasion of Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing has said it will bring under its control. An attempt to seize and control the island would involve an amphibious invasion of the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait, but there was no indication of amphibious forces being mobilized during the latest drills.
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The Chinese drills were likely pre-planned for a scenario in which Beijing wanted to demonstrate its determination to fight for Taiwan, said Thomas Shugart, a former US submarine warfare officer and assistant senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Mr Shugart said China’s decision to conduct drills for the first time in maritime areas that Taiwan considers to be its territorial waters showed Beijing’s military posture had increased, but a real test of its ability to operate effectively as a unit force would only come if it faced a response from Taiwanese or American forces.
“Overall, we are learning mostly about political intent: the Chinese are concerned about the trend in US-Taiwan relations and their view that we are moving away from commitments made in the 1970s and reiterated by every administration since then, that they do not support an independent Taiwan,” said Mr. Twomey. “They are using military tools to communicate that these changes in US policy have a military cost.”
—Charles Hutzler contributed to this article.
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