Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Hong Kong next week to “attend a meeting celebrating the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland and the inaugural ceremony of the sixth-term government,” according to China’s Xinhua news agency. John Lee will be sworn in as Hong Kong Chief Executive, replacing Carrie Lam who has held the post since July 2017. The trip will be Xi’s first outside of mainland China since January 2020. As the number of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong have been rising in recent weeks, it was unclear whether Xi would visit the city. But with the 25th anniversary of the handover coinciding with the swearing in of a new Hong Kong Chief Executive, China’s leader obviously decided a day trip to the city is worth the risk.
China’s military has called the recent transit of a US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft over Taiwan Strait as being a deliberate attempt to disrupt the regional situation and endangered peace and stability. On Friday the US Poseidon flew over the strait separating the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. The flight came one day after Taiwan was forced to scramble fighters to intercept twenty-two Chinese aircraft operating in the Taiwanese air defense identification zone. All of this activity around Taiwan Strait comes days after the US government rejected a Chinese claim that the strait is not international waters.
Last week’s launching of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) newest aircraft carrier attracted world attention. The ship, named Fujian, is China’s largest and most advanced aircraft carrier, rivaling US aircraft carriers in size. Capabilities, however, might be another matter altogether. I mean let’s be frank. The US Navy has decades of carrier operating experience under its belt. That has created an expertise which plays a critical role in the development of new carriers and technologies. China’s weapons and electronics, on the other hand, may look nice and comparable to US systems but likely does not measure up operationally. Then there’s the matter of training a cadre of first-rate naval aviators. It could take the Chinese some time to develop enough pilots to successfully operate an air wing from the deck of Fujian.
This carrier is just the latest milestone in China’s journey to develop a navy able to challenge the power of the US Navy. Under Xi Jinping the PLAN has undergone a massive modernization and expansion. Shipbuilding numbers have risen considerably over the last decade in every major warship class. To put it simply, China is turning out ships like hotcakes. Whether the technologies are comparable to the US Navy remains to be seen. In the end it could come down to a matter of quality (US) versus quantity (China).
China’s goal is to field six carrier battlegroups by 2035. This will give China the naval power and capabilities of a first-class blue water navy. China will be able to to project power and support it anywhere in the world. Alongside the shipbuilding surge, China has been improving its naval infrastructure by modernizing port facilities and securing berthing rights in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.
The US Navy has to focus its shipbuilding plan and warfighting doctrine on defeating a peer-level blue water navy at some point in the coming decade. At present, the US Navy is essentially steaming rudderless into a precarious future.
Although there is still a war raging in Ukraine, Taiwan is increasingly on the minds of US diplomats and military leaders. Following President Biden’s trip to Asia and his comments on the possibility of the US militarily supporting Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack there are many questions being raised about how the US might intervene to defend Taiwan if the PRC launches an attack. Policy debates on the shape and size of a potential US intervention are taking on a new importance in the aftermath of Biden’s ambiguous remarks in Tokyo. The president was less than clear, whether by design or circumstance, on the conditions needed to be met in order to trigger a US military response. For example, is Washington willing to intervene in the event of a Chinese military blockade of Taiwan, or will the red line only be crossed after the first Chinese troops land on Taiwanese soil?
Practically speaking, there are considerable obstacles US forces will need to overcome to successfully defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. Geography and force posture are two of the most crucial. Taiwan is situated in the PRC’s front yard. Just 110 miles of water separate the island-nation from the Mainland. This is an advantage that cannot be negated or minimized. Hundreds of tactical aircraft and ballistic missiles, dozens of warships and thousands of troops ready for embarkation are normally based in close proximity to the Taiwan Strait. During a buildup to hostilities, reinforcements will pour into the Eastern Theater Command area and greatly increase the combat power available for an operation against Taiwan. Considerably more combat power than the US and select allied nations in the region could bring to bare or use as a deterrent. Improvements in Chinese air and naval capabilities over the last twelve years also make the formula more than a numbers game. The US forces still maintain a qualitative edge, but that is diminishing somewhat. Expanding capabilities, coupled with China’s already immense advantage in quantity might be enough to keep the US military at bay and unable to effectively influence the battle.
Periodically in the coming weeks, Today’s DIRT will examine the options available for the US to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, as well as taking a detailed look at the forces available to both the US and China.
Joe Biden’s first trip to Asia as president was positively gushed over by many in the media. Foreign policy and political pundits attached to left-leaning publications and news channels applauded Biden for adopting a strong position against China during his trip. While in Tokyo, Biden rolled out the framework for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a trade pact the administration is hoping will serve as a counter to China’s growing economic power and influence in the Indo-Pacific region. On this past Monday, Biden stated the United States will defend Taiwan militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion. Strong, confident words and proposed action by the leader of the free world.
Unfortunately, some factors were left out of Biden’s calculations. To no one’s surprise, most left-wing and/or mainstream journalists failed to make mention of this. On the economic side, Taiwan has not received an invitation to join the IPEF despite demonstrating high interest in becoming a member. Militarily, despite Biden’s promise and sentiment, the United States does not have a concrete war plan centered on countering a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Sure, Indo-Pacific Command has dozens of contingency plans and hypotheticals available to work from, as do the individual services. So, Biden has promised to defend Taiwan with American blood even though the military has no realistic plan for this at the present time. Then we have the administration deliberately keeping Taiwan away from IPEF membership because bringing Taipei aboard will be viewed as provocative and controversial by Beijing.
Not surprisingly, China is less than thrilled by the US following IPEF and Biden’s Taiwan comments. On Tuesday, as leaders of the Quad nations met in Tokyo, Chinese and Russian bombers flew in close proximity to Japanese airspace. Chinese officials were vocal in denouncing IPEF while China’s state-run media claim the pact is ‘economic NATO.’ Xi Jinping will likely limit his country’s response to verbal outrage and a handful of snap air and sea exercises. Quite honestly, China has more pressing problems to worry about closer to home right now.
In time, China will get around to adopting an effective counter to IPEF and Biden’s newfound military confidence. Then the competition for supremacy in Asia will officially begin.
The media, analysts, talking heads and pundits have spent most of Monday breaking down Joe Biden’s comment that the United States will intervene militarily in the event China invades Taiwan. Some believe Biden misspoke, while others are of the opinion that the US president’s words were deliberate and contain message to Chinese leadership. The third group subscribes to the theory that Biden was the victim of another mental faux pas and his thoughts on a US response to a Chinese attack against Taiwan change with each passing week and should not be taken seriously.
For those of you who were unaware of what happened earlier today, at a press conference in Japan Biden hinted he would go further to help Taiwan then he has for Ukraine. A reporter asked him if this meant the US will intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island. Biden replied that it did and said so without expansion or clarification. At a time when tensions in the Western Pacific are on the rise, Biden’s words could end up being tantamount to flicking a lighter while sitting atop a powder keg.
The White House moved rapidly to remold Biden’s words, emphasizing that the president stated US policy is not changing. In a statement handed out to reporters, the White House attempted to conduct damage control. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”
The Pentagon chimed in soon after with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sharing his two cents. “I think the president was clear on the fact that the policy has not changed.”
Given the present tensions between China and the United States, Biden’s comments will elicit a response from the Chinese government. Most likely in the coming hours. In the absence of a reaction, tomorrow’s entry will look at just what military steps the United States and her allies in the Western Pacific could take in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.