Last week, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) declared an end to its live-fire military exercises. An enraged Beijing kicked off the drills in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan during her recent trip to Asia. The exercises presented a rare window for the outside world to examine the PLA’s strength, offered clues to how Beijing plans to take over Taiwan militarily, and served as a reminder that Beijing has consistently matched its rhetoric with actions.
China’s Fighting Power Has Dramatically Improved
All branches of the PLA, from the army, navy, and air force, to logistical units, participated in the week-long drills. They encircled Taiwan, which effectively imposed a blockade on the island. The PLA showed off its fighting power by deploying fighter jets and bombers in the sky and destroyers, submarines, and aircraft carriers in the ocean.
The PLA also launched ballistic missiles over Taiwan, five of which, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, landed in Japanese-controlled water for the first time. Taiwan’s military also accused Beijing of sustained cyberattacks on Taiwan’s internet service.
Many defense experts were shocked at how much progress the Chinese military had made since the last Taiwan strait crisis in 1995-1996 when China staged military exercises after then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan.
According to Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at Stanford University, China’s military exercises in the ’90s felt like child’s play because the PLA “barely had what could be considered an air force and a navy. Its pilots could not fly over water, at night, or in rough weather. In 1999 less than 2 percent of its fighters were the fourth generation, just 4 percent of its attack submarines were classed as modern (nuclear powered, for example), and none of its surface ships was.”
The PLA’s recent drills demonstrate that China’s investment in modernizing its military during the last two decades has paid off. The PLA has transformed from a backwater fighting force into a modern and cohesive one. Has the PLA advanced enough to be comparable to America’s in quality and quantity? While Mastro seems to think so, many other China watchers disagree.
The most recent side-by-side comparison of the relative fighting strengths of China and the United States shows that the U.S. military still leads in many areas, including having more fighter jets and aircraft carriers than the PLA does. Additionally, the PLA hasn’t been battle-tested for more than four decades. The last time it attempted to invade somewhere was in 1979, and the target was Vietnam. The PLA suffered a humiliating defeat despite being better equipped and having numeric advantages over the Vietnam army.
Based on these recent drills, a realistic assessment of the PLA is that it has made significant progress and has narrowed the gap between itself and the U.S. military in many areas. Engaging the PLA in a war will be a very challenging endeavor. The U.S. military cannot afford to be complacent, and continuing to invest in our military’s fighting power should be a priority for any U.S. administration.
China Is Testing a New Strategy
China’s military drills have demonstrated its resolve and ability to invade Taiwan, but these exercises also suggest that Beijing is testing new strategies on Taiwan. Rather than an outright invasion, Beijing may first impose a blockade on Taiwan to starve the island’s economy while cutting off the island’s contact with the outside world and preventing economic and military aid from arriving from Taiwan’s allies.
Such a blockade will devastate the world economy because Taiwan sits in the South China Sea, where more than a third of international trade volume passes annually. The Chinese military’s persistent presence will disrupt commercial activities in the region, and ripple effects will be felt worldwide.
Additionally, the PLA may implement the large-scale coordinated drills we just witnessed in the Taiwan Strait. According to Mastro, “not only does this heighten anxiety in Taipei (and probably other regional capitals as well), but it helps to disguise any preparations for a real military campaign” because “China needs an element of surprise to be able to take Taiwan before America has time to mobilize adequate forces in the region to defend the island.”
The challenge facing Taiwan and the U.S. is how to distinguish China’s routine exercise from a surprise attack because remaining vigilant all the time is mentally and physically exhausting and financially costly.
Actions — And Inactions — Speak Louder Than Words
Before Pelosi visited Taiwan, the Chinese government issued many “fire and fury” warnings. Although the Chinese military didn’t shoot down Pelosi’s plane as some Chinese nationalists suggested, it certainly matched its words with actions.
Besides conducting week-long live-fire military drills, Beijing imposed sanctions on Pelosi and her immediate family and canceled dialogues with the U.S. on climate change and military cooperation.
But it was Taiwan that took most of China’s fury. Right after Pelosi left Taiwan, China suspended imports of many Taiwanese agricultural products while halting exports of natural sand — used in construction and concrete — to Taiwan.
The Chinese government also arrested Yang Chih-yuen, accusing him of “engaging in separatist activities and supporting formal independence” for Taiwan, and banned two non-profit organizations in Taiwan, Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and Taiwan Foreign Ministry’s International Cooperation and Development Fund, from “cooperating with any organizations, companies, and individuals in the mainland.”
While Beijing’s actions match its fiery warnings, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats seem to believe that rhetoric is a sufficient substitute for action.
Suppose Pelosi truly believes that the U.S. and Taiwan’s relationship is “ironclad.” According to Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead, Pelosi “should have beat the drum for the past 15 years for greater military preparedness even if this meant larger defense appropriations. She should have gone ballistic over President Obama’s passivity as China created new military bases in the South China Sea.”
Instead, Pelosi “slept at the helm” as China modernized its military. Furthermore, Congressional Democrats demanded to cut the U.S. defense budget to fund domestic pet projects like the Green New Deal.
The Biden administration is also responsible for the growing threat of China. Defense expert Elbridge Colby tweeted that despite saying many correct things about Taiwan, the Biden administration “is not increasing defense spending at anything like the level needed to address this threat, especially without sharply focusing on Asia. In fact, the Administration’s proposed defense budget *cut* military spending in real terms this year.”
As China conducted live-fire drills near Taiwan, the Biden administration announced it would delay a routine U.S. missile test to avoid escalating tensions with China after Pelosi’s visit.
Why was the Biden administration concerned about placating Beijing when Beijing was the one who antagonized the escalation? Why didn’t the Biden administration respond to China’s sanctions on Pelosi and her family by imposing sanctions on PLA generals and their families?
Furthermore, the Biden administration’s inaction has failed to de-escalate the tension in Taiwan Strait. And because of this, last week, Beijing was emboldened to declare that it would extend military drills “indefinitely” before it decided to wind them down shortly after that.
Inaction is the last thing that will deter the PLA from invading Taiwan. If China perceives a consistent gap between the U.S. government’s actions and rhetoric on Taiwan, its military may grow more aggressive. Regardless of the outcome, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will incur an enormous cost for all parties involved.