Foreign defense experts warn against reading China’s military simulation of pressing Taiwan as a direct path to annexation that Beijing has warned it may one day attempt.
But they agree the show of force is a watershed moment in the island’s 73-year-old conflict and, more broadly, in the balance of power between China and the United States.
John Culver, a former CIA official who spent decades studying the PLA, says US-China relations entered a new era following the Chinese drills, which included several unprecedented elements, including firing of a missile which flew over the island for the first time, and the effective closure of maritime spaces.
The Chinese Air Force has also sent a record number of warplanes across the middle line of the Taiwan Strait. Some of the target areas designated by China were inside Taiwan’s territorial waters.
“We are in a new status quo. I don’t see how this will end,” Culver says. “It may only be a day or three of military exercises around the island, but we are in a new period. It’s going to become their go-to, and they can even do it as a routine workout.
The prelude to a blockade?
The PLA cordoned off six large areas around Taiwan for four days. Xinhua
China’s response to Pelosi’s visit was immediate and dramatic.
The PLA cordoned off six large areas around Taiwan for three days in waters and airspace that host extremely busy flight routes and shipping lanes – enough to prompt an accusation from Taiwan that it amounts to a blockade of its ports. This is a departure from the PLA’s past practice of not interfering with major flight and merchant shipping routes.
“This is a pre-blockade demonstration, as a full blockade would include threats to shoot down airliners and the exploitation of ports by submarines and the deployment of naval air forces in a full circle around Taiwan,” said Rick Fisher, lead researcher. at the International Center for Assessment and Strategy.
“This is the first opportunity for the PLA to prove to itself and to Taiwan that it can conduct large joint air, naval, missile and space operations necessary to impose a full blockade.”
Although no more than a handful of flights have been canceled, the drill is forcing airlines and shipping companies to change their routes as they approach Taiwan.
Experts believe that the PLA does not yet have the capacity to maintain such pressure on the country for an extended period, but warn that it could repeat similar operations.
“We are still a long way from shutting down Taiwan in the long term, but if the PLA announces there will be second and third rounds, that would be a different game,” said Christopher Twomey, a China expert at the Naval Department. ‘U.S. Navy. Graduate school in Monterey.
“Shipping through conflict zones increases insurance costs and leads to delays and disruptions.”
Twomey adds that Beijing’s intention is to provoke a debate in Taiwan over the merits of the country’s fierce opposition to unification with China and to highlight the cost of such reunification.
Beijing called the moves a furious retaliation against Pelosi’s trip. But there are signs he planned the show of force for months. According to Taiwanese intelligence, Beijing has begun privately threatening a strong response since Pelosi’s intention to visit was first made public in April.
“It gave them the opportunity to do things they felt were necessary in their military training that would otherwise have been politically impossible,” a senior Taiwanese government official said.
“The firing of a ballistic missile over Taipei could have triggered a global outcry or even sanctions if it was considered ‘unprovoked,’” he says, comparing the move to North Korea’s launch of a missile that flew over Japanese territory in 2017. “Now they’re getting away with it.
Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon No. 3 official, said that while the Chinese drills were “very provocative,” it didn’t look like the PLA was mobilizing for a major conflict with Taiwan. But adds “there is always a risk of miscalculation”.
However, Taiwanese and Western officials fear that Beijing will accompany its military moves with other moves aimed at establishing a new status quo around Taiwan.
In recent months, Chinese military officials have said in interactions with their American counterparts that the Taiwan Strait – a vital artery for trade in energy and industrial goods between East Asia and the rest of the world and regularly crossed by American warships – is not international waters.
“They could use the Pelosi incident to justify changes to the status quo like they did around the Senkaku Islands,” a Western official said.
Following Japan’s 2012 nationalization of these islets in the East China Sea, which Beijing claims and also calls the Diaoyu, the Chinese government began sending coastguards and military vessels to the contiguous zone of the archipelago to challenge Japan’s control over it.
In the South China Sea – disputed between China and several of its neighbors – Beijing has been gradually building artificial islands and militarizing them with missiles and planes – a potential reason why the US Air Force plane carrying Malaysia’s Pelosi in Taiwan avoided the area.
“It’s unclear whether they intend to do a similar slicing of salami in the Taiwan Strait as they do in the South China Sea, or cut a very large slice at a time – as they have done with the Senkakus, but this is clearly a key moment,” the Western official said.
The “One China” Policy
Even before Pelosi’s trip, Beijing believed that the United States was gradually eroding its “One China” policy. In Washington, a key question is whether that perception will now harden.
The People’s Republic of China has claimed Taiwan as its territory and has threatened to take it by force ever since the government of the Nationalist Republic of China fled to the formerly Japanese-ruled island after losing the civil war on the continent in 1949.
This threat was contained for decades – first with a military alliance between the United States and the Republic of China on Taiwan, and after Washington changed diplomatic recognition of the PRC in 1979 by the American policy of China, which recognizes Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of one China. but does not comment on the future of Taiwan.
This complex balance has been shaken since Taiwan’s democratization in the 1990s and China has become increasingly belligerent.
The Biden administration, after the Trump presidency, made subtle changes to how it deals with Taipei, such as easing restrictions on US officials meeting with Taiwanese officials. And while the White House continues to say it does not support Taiwanese independence, Biden has warned China that the United States will intervene militarily if China attacks Taiwan.
Roughead says the events of the past week underscore the need for the United States to move more military forces into the Pacific. But he says there is a danger that the United States will lose focus due to domestic political issues, which would be particularly dangerous after November when Xi Jinping is set to assemble an unprecedented third team in charge. of the Chinese Communist Party.
“We see the event, react, and move on, but Beijing takes the event and thinks, ‘how does this fit into our roadmap,’” he says.
Military experts say the rapid modernization of the PLA, showcased in this week’s operation, has left the US military with rapidly diminishing options to counter it without risking war.
“Because of the change in the military balance, it will be very difficult for the United States to send the right set of signals to China, and [for] allies not to be constrained by these signals,” says Twomey.
Fisher says now is the time for Washington to undertake a massive arms airlift to Taiwan to build up war stocks ahead of a full Chinese blockade.
“There must now be explicit, albeit informal, military coordination between Taiwan, Japan and the United States to undertake effective military operations against China,” he says, even suggesting the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons. in or near Taiwan. However, most observers dismiss these steps as highly escalating.
Flournoy says it is a mistake to think that the US military must react immediately to the situation around Taiwan.
“The name of the game is deterring China from invading Taiwan. And that means working closely with Taiwan to seriously upgrade its defenses and make it a porcupine,” she says, referring to the view that states States must help Taiwan become a harder target to attack.
Many Taiwanese believe that failure to intervene would be America’s second betrayal. When Foreign Secretary Joseph Wu bid farewell on Wednesday as Pelosi’s plane taxied into the sunset, the scene evoked memories of the departure of the last US military commander in April 1979 after Washington abandoned Taipei for Beijing.
This change left Taiwan isolated on the international stage, but the emerging engagement between the United States and China calmed tensions and the resulting domestic pressures led to reforms, generating an economic miracle and ultimately transforming the country into one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies.
This time, the outlook is radically different. As the Taiwanese government official said, “We have worked so hard to improve Taiwan. But right now, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future.