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During the last Taiwan crisis, China’s military was outmatched by American forces. Not now.

Written by Javed Iqbal

Three French-made Mirage 2000 fighter jets taxi on a runway in front of a hangar at Hsinchu Air Base on August 5, 2022. China conducted its largest military exercises to date, encircling Taiwan despite condemnation from the United States, Japan and the European Union.

Sam Yeh | AFP | Getty Images

The last time tensions rose between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, the US Navy sent warships through the Taiwan Strait, and there was nothing China could do about it.

Those days are over.

China’s military has undergone a transformation since the mid-1990s, when a crisis erupted over Taiwan’s president visiting the United States, prompting an angry reaction from Beijing.

“It’s a very different situation now,” said Michele Flournoy, a 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. The new military power changes the strategic calculus for the United States 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 current tensions, China staged live-fire military exercises, issued stern warnings to Taipei and fired missiles into waters near Taiwan.

But the US military responded with the 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 should know that the strongest military power in the Western Pacific is the United States,” said then-Defense Secretary William Perry.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was then a low-tech, slow-moving force no match for the US military, with a lackluster navy and air force that could not venture 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 up in their faces 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, surprised by the high-tech display of the US military in the first Gulf War, “schooled in the American way of war” and launched a concerted effort to invest in their military and – above all – to strengthen their position in Taiwan- the strait, said Kroenig.

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 across 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’s actually amazing how quickly the PLA Navy has built itself up. And of course in 95-96 the PLA Air Force hardly ever flew over the 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 opinion, we are witnessing one of the greatest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed,” Milley said last year.

The Chinese military is now “very formidable, especially in and around home waters, especially near Taiwan,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former head of NATO.

China’s navy now has more ships than the United States, he said. Although U.S. Navy ships are larger and more advanced, with more experienced crews and commanders, “quantity has a quality of its own,” said Stavridis, an NBC News analyst.

China is currently building amphibious vehicles and helicopters to be able to stage a possible full-scale invasion of Taiwan, experts say, but whether the PLA is capable of such a feat is still a matter of debate.

During the 1995-96 crisis, China lost communication with one of its missiles and came away determined to wean itself off global positioning systems tied to the United States, Matthew said Funaiole, a China expert 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 now have to take into account a much more lethal and agile Chinese military that could deny America the ability to deploy warships or aircraft with impunity and even operate safely from bases in the region, Funaiole and other experts said. .

“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.

Outraged by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week China launched major live-fire military drills, including ballistic missile launches, surpassing those conducted in the 1995-96 war. The exercises are located in waters around Taiwan to the north, east and south, with some of the exercises within about 10 miles of Taiwan’s coast. China once lacked the ability to conduct a major exercise in waters east of Taiwan, experts said.

China fired at least 11 ballistic missiles near Taiwan on Thursday, one of which flew over the island, according to officials in Taipei. 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 moving 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 would remain in the region while China conducts its exercises around Taiwan to “monitor the situation.” But National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said a previously planned ICBM test had been postponed to avoid any misunderstanding.

Despite the 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.

Currently, Chinese President Xi is focused on boosting 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 could breed 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 risk that Xi may underestimate US resolve and that he believes there is a window of opportunity to seize or blockade Taiwan in the next few years before US investment in new weapons changes the military balance, Flournoy said , now chairman of the centre. for a New American Security think tank.

“I’m concerned that China is miscalculating because the narrative in Beijing continues to be one of American decline, that the United States is turning inward,” Flournoy said. “It is very dangerous if you underestimate your potential opponent.”

To prevent such an outcome, Flournoy argues that both Taiwan and the United States need to bolster their military forces to deter Beijing and raise the potential costs of any possible invasion or intervention against Taiwan.

Finkelstein said he worries about an “action-reaction” chain of events that could lead to a conflict that no one wants, and that the risk of miscalculations in Beijing, Taipei and Washington “is getting sky high.”

To keep a lid on tensions, the US and China need to have an intense dialogue to lower the temperature, he said. “We have to talk to each other constantly.”

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Javed Iqbal

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