The dozens of warplanes flying daily over the median line of the Taiwan Strait and warships prowling the waters off the coast represent a significant and ominous change in the status quo, and one that could have enormous implications for the defense of Taiwan in the future , experts say. and officials said.
Pushing these warplanes over the line not only erases the previous boundary, but doing it in coordination with warships and keeping away from the missiles flying close by is exactly the kind of real-time interaction that modern militaries spend so much time and effort on perfect , and has famously confused the Russians in Ukraine. Aligning these systems while watching Taiwan’s response would provide critical knowledge of both capability and preparedness for Beijing should it launch military strikes against Taiwan or U.S. interests in the Pacific.
Chinese military planners are no doubt soaking up the reaction to their efforts as Taiwan activates missile defense radars and moves troops and equipment around the island, giving Beijing key insights into how Taipei might respond in wartime.
Previous Chinese exercises have been “like driving a new car around a lot, as opposed to taking it out on the highway,” said Randy Schriver, who served as the Pentagon’s top Asia policy official in the Trump administration. “The coordinated division of the island is the kind of exercise that will be more applicable to an actual strike.”
To this point, the United States has publicly held back and said very little about the drills, while keeping its Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan strike group in the region but not close to Taiwan. The amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli is near Okinawa and the amphibious assault ship USS America is in the East China Sea. Both have F-35 fighter jets.
More significant will be glimpses of how China deploys and uses its forces. It is likely to be a “bonanza of intelligence” that 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.
Those looks “would provide a better picture of how the PLA might in the future prosecute an invasion of Taiwan, or more generally how it would conduct a major military campaign,” than any long-planned exercise on the Chinese mainland ever could, Koh added.
Defense officials said the military is closely monitoring the exercises, but generally has been quiet about the Chinese actions. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby has said repeatedly this week that the United States is not looking for a conflict with China.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said while traveling in Cambodia on Friday, “there is no justification for this extreme, disproportionate and escalating military response,” adding that the Chinese moves “are a significant escalation” in the region.
While the Chinese military has been testing its missiles for years, its launch teams have never worked in an operational scenario where they must contend with the complexities of military and commercial air and sea traffic and ensure their missiles can reach over populated civilian areas and land safely in designated waters.
Ahead of the live-fire drills this week, Beijing unveiled a map of six zones where it planned to conduct the drills, forming a virtual ring around Taiwan. After the drills began on Thursday, the military fired at least 11 ballistic missiles that splashed into the waters 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 middle line that bisects the Taiwan Strait, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense. The move “endangered the status quo of the strait,” the agency tweeted, noting that Taipei responded by jamming aircraft and ships, as well as activating surveillance and anti-aircraft missile systems.
“We condemn such action that disturbed our surrounding airspace and waters and continue to ensure our democracy and freedom free from threats,” the ministry tweeted.
The drills may be designed as intimidation, but the highly choreographed and coordinated movements are much more complex than previous shows of force, Schriver said.
“These are multiple shots aimed at different closed areas that are timed in a certain way, so it looks more like if they were to actually use missiles to attack Taiwan,” he said.
For the Chinese, the exercise is also a chance to find out whether Taiwan’s air defenses were able to intercept their missile launches and how Taiwan’s civil defense would respond to an attack, Schriver said.
“They probably wanted to know, did the Taiwan Air Force pick us up? Did they light us up with a fire control radar?” he said.
The exercises have provided an opportunity to not only test whether their missiles can hit their targets in an operational scenario, but also whether China’s ships and aircraft can effectively block the island through their military movements.
The last time China made moves around Taiwan to this extent was in 1996, when Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait after angering Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States to give a speech on the island’s democratization.
But the modernized Chinese military today bears little resemblance to the force of 1996, boasting new missiles, the largest navy in the world, two aircraft carriers and fighter jets that rival Taiwan’s F-16s and US carrier-based jets.
“The PLA couldn’t do any of this,” said Lonnie Henley, an associate professor at George Washington University and former defense intelligence officer for East Asia.
“The things that the PLA is doing are completely routine things for the PLA to do these days,” Henley added. “They’re just doing them all at once around Taiwan, instead of doing them spread out over a period of a few months in a series of training zones in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.”
But Taiwan hasn’t been sitting on its hands in recent decades either. For years it has bought US F-16 fighter jets and other equipment, and in late 2020 it reached a flurry of arms deals with Washington on highly sophisticated systems that would turn the island into a “hedgehog” 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 for which Ukraine has made a household name – 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 relationship to the real world and its complications. The quick reaction exercises “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 crisis in the Taiwan Strait provides an opportunity to evaluate their capabilities and identify weaknesses to work on,” he added. “The PLA is likely to gather a lot about itself in the process.”