What we learned from the Chinese military drills around Taiwan

AFP , Tuesday 11 Apr 2023

China has wrapped up three days of military drills around Taiwan, its largest since August, in a show of force it described as a rehearsal to "seal off" the self-ruled island.

Chinese fighter
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a J-15 Chinese fighter jet prepares to take off from the Shandong aircraft carrier during the combat readiness patrol and military exercises around the Taiwan Island by the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People s Liberation Army (PLA) on Sunday, April 9, 2023. AP


Here is what the "Joint Sword" exercises taught us about China's military capabilities -- and Taiwan's chances in the event of a conflict:

What have we learned about Chinese capabilities?

China deployed a vast arsenal, from state-of-the-art land-based anti-ship missiles to fighter jets, bombers and even an aircraft carrier.

On Monday alone, Taiwan's defence ministry said it had detected 12 Chinese warships and 91 aircraft around the island -- 54 of these crossed the island's air defence identification zone (ADIZ), the highest single-day tally since 2021.

The complexity of the deployment "shows progress in China's preparation if there is a need for an attack against Taiwan", said Renmin University's Shi Yinhong, who has served as a consultant with China's State Council.

"The combat capability of the PLA is also constantly improving, especially the rapid response capability," Song Zhongping, an analyst and former officer in the Chinese military, told AFP.

China believes the sooner its forces can establish a foothold around Taiwan, the less chance there is of an international intervention force coming to the island's aid.

Why did China react so forcefully?

Prompted by a meeting between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California, the drills were reminiscent of the exercises last August after McCarthy's predecessor Nancy Pelosi visited the island.

Then, Beijing held live-fire military drills just a dozen miles off Taiwan's shore -- its largest-ever show of force around the island.

One mainland analyst told AFP this week's drills were "not as intense".

But others argued that, while more contained, they revealed greater strategic sophistication.

"Compared (with) last August, the PLA's combat plan has been improved, and there have been new upgrades," Song said.

The use of the Shandong aircraft carrier suggested the exercises were intended less as a show of force and more as a rehearsal for an actual war, Hong Kong-based military analyst Leung Kwok-leung said.

"The intention is very obvious: to test the formation's combat capability in a practical environment," he said, noting the carrier's deployment in the Pacific well beyond the Taiwan Strait.

What did we learn about China's tactics?

Like in August last year, the exercises focused on a blockade of Taiwan aimed at cutting off its supply routes, combined with strikes that overwhelm the island's defences.

In the latest drills, warplanes practiced what China called the "sealing off" of Taiwan, while its propaganda channels released stylised graphics showing "simulated strikes" on Taipei.

But some analysts remain sceptical about the effectiveness of such tactics.

"What can be done in a simulation may or may not be implemented in reality in combat conditions," said Steve Tsang from London's SOAS university.

"It cannot be certain that (China) can deter the US from intervening, or that it can enforce effectively a blockade of Taiwan, or launch amphibious assaults and sustain them to secure victory," he said.

Tsang argued that China's military would need around 10 years to "substantially build up such capabilities", including joint combined arms training.

"The Taiwanese are not going to sit idle in the coming decade either," Tsang added.

What does this mean for Taiwan's future?

Taiwan has launched drills of its own and insisted it will resist what it calls China's "authoritarian expansionism".

In recent years, it has matched that rhetoric with its chequebook, seeking a range of systems from the United States aimed at deterring China or, failing that, inflicting a heavy cost in an invasion scenario.

They "include everything from aircraft to aircraft parts to missiles, missile technology, submarine technology, radar and surveillance equipment, and tanks", said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

Taiwan could boast the largest fleet of US-made F-16 fighters in the region once all the jets in a $62 billion deal are delivered.

Enough of that equipment "can make it clear to (China) that any escalation may prove difficult to control, highly risky, and very costly, whatever an eventual outcome might be," he added.

Whether that is enough to sway China from attempting what President Xi Jinping has called the "historic mission" of reunification with Taiwan is not clear.

But it may be enough to keep Beijing at bay for the time being, said Tsang.

"If Xi thinks the PLA can do it within acceptable costs, he would have invaded Taiwan already," he said.

"He hasn't because the PLA can't."

Short link: