Three French Mirage 2000 fighters are taxiing on the runway in front of the hangar at Hsinchu Air Force Base on August 5, 2022. China conducted the largest-ever military exercise around Taiwan despite condemnation by the United States, Japan and the European Union.
Sam Yeh | AFP | Getty Images
The last time tensions between Beijing and Washington increased over Taiwan, the US Navy sent warships through the Taiwan Strait, and there was nothing China could do about it.
Those days are gone.
The Chinese army has undergone a transformation since the mid-1990s, when the crisis broke out over the visit of the President of Taiwan to the US, sparking an angry reaction from Beijing.
“The situation is very different now,” said Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Politics in the Obama administration. “It’s a much more contested and more lethal environment for our forces.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, unlike his predecessors, now has a serious military force at his disposal, including ship-killing missiles, a powerful navy and an increasingly capable air force. This new military power is changing the strategic bill for the US and Taiwan, raising the potential risk of conflict or miscalculation, former officials and experts say.
During the 1995-96 crisis, in echo of the current tensions, China organized a military exercise with live fire, issued severe warnings to Taipei, and launched rockets into waters near Taiwan.
However, the US military responded with the largest show of strength since the Vietnam War, sending a number of warships to the area, including two groups of aircraft carriers. The aircraft carrier Nimitz and other battleships passed the narrow waterway separating China from Taiwan, revealing the idea of America’s military domination.
“Beijing should know that the United States is the strongest military power in the Western Pacific,” said then Secretary of Defense William Perry.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was then a technologically underdeveloped, slow-moving force that could not match the US Army, with a weak navy and air force that could not venture too far from the coast of China, past and present US officials said.
“They realized they were defenseless, that Americans could go straight in the face with aircraft carriers, and they couldn’t help it,” said Matthew Kroenig, who served as an intelligence and defense officer at Bush, Obama and Trump. administrations.
The Chinese, surprised by the US military’s high-tech display during the First Gulf War, “went to school on the American Way of War” and made a concerted effort to invest in their army and – above all – to strengthen their position in the Taiwan Strait, Kroenig said .
Beijing learned many lessons from the 1995-96 crisis by concluding that it needed satellite surveillance and other intelligence to spot enemies on the horizon, as well as a navy and “blue water” air force capable of sailing and flying across the Western Pacific according to David Finkelstein, director of China and Indo-Pacific security at CNA, an independent research institute.
“The PLA Navy has made significant progress since 1995 and 1996. It’s truly stunning how quickly the PLA Navy has grown. And of course, in 95-96, the PLA Air Force almost never flew over water, ”said Finkelstein. , retired US Army officer.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described China’s dramatic rise as a military power as a strategic earthquake.
“In my opinion, we are witnessing one of the biggest changes in global geostrategic power the world has witnessed,” Millley said last year.
The Chinese army is now “very powerful, especially in and around their home waters, especially around Taiwan,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former NATO commander.
He said the Chinese Navy now has more ships than the US. While US Navy ships are larger and more advanced, with more experienced crews and commanders, “quantity has its own quality,” said Stavridis, an NBC News analyst.
China is currently building amphibians and helicopters to be able to stage a possible full-scale invasion of Taiwan, experts say, though whether the PLA is capable of such a feat remains a moot point.
During the 1995-96 crisis, China lost communication with one of its missiles and decided to ditch the US-tied global positioning systems, said Matthew Funaiole, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “It made them think that” we cannot rely on technology from other countries, “he said.
Officials in the US and Taiwan now have to consider the much more lethal and agile Chinese army, which may deny America the ability to deploy warships or aircraft with impunity or even safely operate from bases in the region, Funaiole and other experts said. .
“The game has changed in terms of how the US deck is arranged. It’s a much more even game. Whatever the United States is doing, China has options, ”said Funaiole.
Outraged by the visit of Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan this week, China launched large-scale military exercises with live fire, including the launch of ballistic missiles, which surpassed those conducted in the 1995-96 band. The exercises take place in the waters surrounding Taiwan from the north, east and south, and some exercises are located approximately 10 miles off the coast of Taiwan. Experts say China was not once able to conduct major exercises in waters east of Taiwan.
China on Thursday fired at least 11 ballistic missiles near Taiwan, one of which flew over the island, according to Taipei officials. Japan reported that five missiles landed in its economic zone, near the island south of Okinawa.
This time, the US government did not announce that warships were moving through the Taiwan Strait. “Biden could try to do it, but China could put them at the bottom of the strait. This is something they couldn’t do in 1995, ”said Kroenig.
The White House said on Thursday that the carrier USS Ronald Reagan will remain in the region while China conducts exercises around Taiwan to “monitor the situation.” But National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the previously scheduled ICBM test was postponed to avoid confusion.
Despite the tough rhetoric between the two powers and mounting tensions, China is reluctant to start a war over Pelosi’s visit and wants to demonstrate a show of force rather than an invasion of Taiwan, former US officials and experts said.
For now, Chinese President Xi is focused on bolstering his country’s weakening economy and securing an unprecedented third term at the next Communist Party Congress this year. But the new Chinese army could instill overconfidence in Beijing’s decision-making or lead to a cycle of escalation in which each side feels compelled to react and show determination, former officials said.
There is a risk that Xi may underestimate US determination and believes there is a chance of taking over or blocking Taiwan in the next few years before US investment in new weapons changes the military balance, said Flournoy, now president of the Center. for the New American Security think tank.
“I’m afraid China will recalculate because the narrative in Beijing is still about the collapse of the US that the US is turning inward,” said Flournoy. “It’s very dangerous if you underestimate your potential opponent.”
To prevent such a solution, Flournoy argues that both Taiwan and the United States must strengthen their military forces to contain Beijing and raise the potential cost of a possible invasion or intervention against Taiwan.
Finkelstein said he was worried about a chain of “action-response” events that could lead to a conflict that no one wants, and that the risk of confusion in Beijing, Taipei and Washington “is sky-high.”
To contain tensions, he said, the US and China must have intense dialogue to bring the temperature down. “We have to talk to each other all the time.”