PLAN and PLAAF exercises in Taiwan Strait are concluding today. China is apparently honoring the exercise schedule, which allows the region to breath a sigh of relief for the time being. This is not the end of drama in the Strait, however. As the PLAN exercises conclude, Taiwanese naval vessels are maintaining a close watch and keeping the Chinese honest. There will be more exercises in the future, though. According to China, the People’s Liberation Army Navy will conduct regular exercises east of the median line.
As the exercises conclude, attention is turning to the intentions of the US Navy over the coming days. The White House announced last week that Seventh Fleet warships, as well as US Navy and USAF aircraft will conduct freedom of navigation (FON) exercises in the Strait in the future. Although the US was not clear about exactly when the FON exercises will begin. If they do not start for another week or longer, there’s potential damage to US credibility in the region. Beijing can say the US was deliberately waiting until China concluded exercises and its warships returned home before moving its own assets into the Strait. Selective power projection, for lack of a better term.
With the Strait temporarily quieting down, I plan to take an opportunity to look over some other global hotspots on Monday and Tuesday. The war in Ukraine continues on and tensions flared up between Israel and Gaza over the last few days leading to rocket attacks on Israeli cities and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes against targets in Gaza. We’ll circle back a bit and see what’s going on over there now.
Tensions remain on the rise in the Western Pacific as Chinese naval and air exercises in and around Taiwan continue ramping up. Today, 68 aircraft and 15 surface vessels were involved in maneuvers. Some Chinese aircraft and ships even crossed the median line. Today saw the largest number of Chinese aircraft operating over Taiwan straits in a 24 hour period ever. Taiwanese government officials have warned again that China’s increasingly aggressive actions are threatening the stability of Taiwan Strait and the region.
Yesterday, the White House summoned China’s ambassador to the United States. The purpose of the meeting was for the Biden administration to condemn China’s military exercises that began in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. China has halted military and climate change dialogue with the US in response to her visit as Beijing is showing no restraint in adopting a hardline stance.
The Pentagon has ordered the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and her escorts to remain in the region to monitor Chinese operations in and around Taiwan. US Navy warships and aircraft are expected to begin operating in Taiwan Strait waters next week or sooner. It is not clear if they will begin operations during Chinese maneuvers, which are scheduled to end on Sunday.
As Nancy Pelosi leaves Taiwan, the Western Pacific is anxiously awaiting China’s next move. The ball is squarely in Beijing’s court now and with the US Speaker of the House of Representatives having departed, China is expected to begin flexing military muscle. It’s unclear exactly what China’s next step will be, but Southeast Asian governments are highly concerned. Today, governments around the region have urged China and the United States to stand back from taking actions that could inflame tensions. Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and other nations also affirmed publicly their support for the One China Policy, which is at the forefront of the brewing crisis at the moment.
China conducted live fire exercises near Taiwan Strait during Pelosi’s visit and has several larger ones planned for the waters around Taiwan. Parts of the designated exercise zones even appear to violate territorial waters claimed by Taiwan. If the exercises do materialize, they could bring about a major escalation in Western Pacific tensions. There is also a sizeable number of US Navy warships in the vicinity of Taiwan Strait including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the amphibious assault ship USS Tripoli. It is unclear how long these ships and their escorts will remain in the area.
It is not clear if or when the Chinese exercises will begin, but there will be a considerable amount of attention focused on the Western Pacific for some days to come.
As the afternoon continues on here in the Eastern United States, Reuters and other news agencies are reporting that Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi will visit Taiwan on Tuesday despite Chinese warnings. Reuters points to three unnamed people who were briefed on the matter as their sources. Publicly, the US government has not commented on Pelosi’s trip. However, Pelosi’s own office mentioned on Sunday that her visit would include stops in Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia. Taiwan was left off the list, leading people to draw their own conclusions about whether or not Pelosi will turn up in Taipei.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said earlier today a visit by Pelosi would be “a gross interference in China’s internal affairs.” He went on to provide a further warning. “We would like to tell the United States once again that China is standing by, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never sit idly by, and China will take resolute responses and strong countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
As I’m writing this post, the White House weighed in on the matter. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters the US anticipates an escalated response by China in the coming days. The actions could include missile firings near Taiwan Strait and large scale air and naval operations in the same sea and airspace. Such heavy-handed actions will not sway the United States, according to Kirby. “We will not take the bait or engage in saber rattling. At the same time, we will not be intimidated.”
China is absorbing the battlefield lessons coming out of the war in Ukraine and carefully analyzing the poor performance of Russian military forces early in the conflict. Beijing’s goal is to identify relevant lessons and apply them to plans for potential military action against Taiwan in the future. The topic was discussed at length during the Aspen Security Forum with senior US military and government officials openly speculating on how Russia’s long war will affect China’s designs for Taiwan. The opinions and comments put forth by US officials have been rather generic and understandably lacking details. CIA Director Bill Burns said yesterday “I suspect the lesson that the Chinese leadership and military are drawing is that you’ve got to amass overwhelming force if you’re going to contemplate that in the future.”
Western military leaders seem obsessed with the prospect of a Chinese invasion. Nearly to the point where other possible scenarios or war plans are ruled out entirely. For the past ten years US general officers and defense secretaries have periodically declared that China is at least 5-10 years away from the point where its military capabilities will support an invasion of Taiwan. And with every year that goes by, China’s military becomes more proficient and better equipped. Yet the 5-10 year window remains unchanged. Earlier this year as the war in Ukraine raged on, the Pentagon changed its tune slightly and estimated the Chinese military will be ready to conduct a cross-strait invasion in the second half of the current decade.
Personally, I believe the PLAN and PLAAF are in a position to conduct operations against Taiwan at the present time. An air and sea blockade could be launched at any time and remain in place indefinitely, barring an effort by an outside force to break the blockade. It must also be recognized that an air/sea blockade is preferable to a bloody land invasion of Taiwan. If anything, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the ability of a smaller army to inflict defeats and heavy casualties on a larger and supposedly more powerful foe.