In a bid to show the US and the rest of the world that it will not sit back and watch American House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 'interfere' in its affairs, China has organised a massive military exercise in six zones surrounding Taiwan. These are live-fire drills, which are a test of a military’s ability to perform missions under conditions most resembling actual warfare. In this case, they are designed to show the level of force China could unleash against Taiwan if Beijing decided to make good on the pledge to seize control of the island and punish those supporting its independence.
The intimidating tactic involves warning aircraft and ships to avoid these areas during the exercises. Sundays are not off days for the drills that look like a rehearsal for a potential blockade and invasion of the island that would almost certainly provoke Taiwan’s principal protector, the US, along with military alliance Nato, ally Japan and possibly Australia. But how serious is the situation?
Going by the history of Sino-American tensions, the current situation will not escalate to a military confrontation. A visit by a dignitary to a land China claims to own cannot be a trigger for war. The more important factor is economics. Since the Chinese market opened up in the late 1980s under a new doctrine revised by then Communist Party of China general secretary Deng Xiaoping, the US has led the West in foreign direct investments in — and outsourcing manufacturing to — China. While in 2020, FDI between the US and China fell to $ 15.9 billion, the lowest since 2009, the volume is still pretty high in absolute terms.
US foreign investment overseas has seen dramatic growth across decades, with multinational American corporations, especially focused on manufacturing, have largely invested in facilities abroad due to financial benefits. Besides, US exports to China were worth $ 164.9 billion while imports were $ 450.4 billion, making the US goods and services trade deficit with China worth $ 285.5 billion in 2020. With all that American money stuck in China, the two countries can hardly afford to battle each other militarily.
However, the international trade route via the South China Sea, on which Beijing stakes its superior rights over the rights of other countries, and Taiwan, where the US has heavily invested too, have the potential to trigger a war between the two big powers if the status quo is disturbed.
What are the most intimidating aspects of the Chinese military exercise?
China has a 2 million-strong military, which is the world’s largest. Its navy has more ships than the US. Taiwan’s armed forces cannot compare in numbers, but it has vowed to resist coercive measures to impose Chinese Communist Party rule over the self-governing island democracy.
Should the Chinese military power not scare the US and other adversaries of Beijing?
While it is a cause of concern, even a bulky Chinese military with sophisticated arms and ammunition is untested. In no real-life battle has the hardware or the Chinese men who operate them dominated an adversary. The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) remains untested in large-scale military operations, which means it may struggle in a prolonged conflict, according to Harry Harris, a retired US Navy admiral who led the US Indo-Pacific Command from 2015 to 2018.
The expert was quoted by Business Insider as saying that while China's military is investing in logistical capabilities and expanding its overseas presence, the PLA's ability to move its forces "to the point of need is severely limited".
China is not known for good coordination between its army, navy and air force either. Its military services lack the experience of fighting together while the US military's service branches have been refining their joint operational ability for decades.
China fought its last major war in 1979 when it invaded northern Vietnam. That conflict lasted only a few weeks, albeit skirmishes dragged on for years, but China's performance is widely regarded as poor. Estimates of Beijing's losses range from 7,900 to 26,000 soldiers killed and 23,000 to 37,000 wounded. China's air force and navy also had no role in combat operations during the short war.
What is China doing on the seas and skies surrounding Taiwan?
If its claims are to be believed, China has begun exercises involving warplanes, navy ships and missile strikes in six zones surrounding Taiwan. Those lie as little as 20 km off the island’s coast. This is an infringement on Taiwan’s territorial waters. Beijing has shared sketchy details of the exercise but it claims this is punishment for the US allowing Pelosi’s visit to proceed, even though President Joe Biden did not have the authority to prevent her travel to the island.
The exercises are arguably the largest and most threatening for Taiwan since the years 1995 and 1996 when Beijing launched missiles into the waters north and south of the island in response to a visit to the US by then-President of Taiwan Lee Teng-hui. China regularly sends warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and has at times crossed the middle line of the Taiwan Strait dividing the sides, but has stopped short of direct incursions or attacks that could spark a regional conflict.
What is the China-Taiwan conflict all about?
China forcefully declares as and when the opportunity arises that Taiwan must be brought under its control by force if necessary and in defiance of Washington and other backers of the island’s democracy. Pelosi’s visit came at a particularly sensitive time when Xi Jinping, the Chinese president and head of the armed forces, is preparing to seek a third five-year term as leader of the CCP.
Xi has named no successor and he has amassed overriding powers despite criticism of his handling of the economy, partly as a result of his hardline approach to Covid-19 and a marked downturn in relations with the West. Xi says Taiwan’s fate cannot remain unsettled indefinitely and US military officials have said China may seek a military solution within the next few years.
This conflict with Taiwan is but of a much older vintage. It began when Chiang Kai-shek, along with the top cadre of his nationalist party Kuomintang, fled to the island, unable to fight CCP's Mao Zedong and claimed the island to be the real China.
On the other hand, China’s constitution incorporates Taiwan into its national territory and its 2005 anti-secession law threatens invasion if "possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted", seen to apply in the case of a formal declaration of independence or foreign intervention.
China insists that Taiwan accept its contention that the island is a part of China, whose sole legitimate government sits in Beijing. In the face of China’s military threats and relentless campaign to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, islanders overwhelmingly support the status quo of de facto independence. That sentiment has been further reinforced by Beijing’s ruthless crackdown on political rights and free speech in Hong Kong, which China has long touted as a model for its future governance of Taiwan.
The Taiwanese people say they are Chinese too but would like to shape China in their own democratic fashion if the island ever merges with mainland China.
The Chinese policy is driven historically by its fixation with the map of the Qing dynasty, in which there are several parts that are today independent, sovereign countries.
At present, both China and the US are eyeing the semiconductor manufacturing hub of Taiwan. Industry cannot work without semiconductors. Their manufacturing going under Chinese control would be detrimental to global interests, as China is likely to export the product on unacceptable terms. The US sees it as a clear and present danger.
How are Taiwan and the US responding to the Chinese military muscle flexing?
Taiwan has put its military on alert and staged civil defence drills. Its air force, navy and 1,65,000-member armed forces are a fraction of the military strength of China. But Taiwan relies on the US for a continuous supply of high-tech weaponry and early-warning systems intended to make a Chinese invasion as difficult as possible.
Taiwan heightened its preparedness seeing China-supported Russia invade Ukraine. The island country, which only 13 countries across the world recognise, is overhauling its soldiers' training and tactics.
Already, many US naval and other military assets are deployed in areas close to Taiwan. They include the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its battle group. Washington has comprehensively rejected China’s claims that the Taiwan Strait is sovereign Chinese territory and maintains the right to sail past Chinese outposts in the South China Sea, despite Chinese protests.
What are the risks, and how long will tensions persist?
There are possibilities on either side. While the Biden administration wishes to demonstrate it does not pussyfoot China and that the Democrat government is no less nationalistic than the preceding Republican dispensation led by Donald Trump, China must send across a message that it will not cower under the American threat while also trying to scare India that it is getting closer to attacking the southern neighbour. But neither side can sustain such posturing for a long time.
will seek to keep tensions at a high pitch even after the end of the current round of exercises. Spokespeople from the Foreign and Defense Ministries, the Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office and other departments have vowed President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration and the U.S. government will pay a price over Pelosi’s visit but have not given details on how and when that objective will be achieved.
But India and China do engage each other militarily. Why so?
The US-China and India-China relations are not comparable despite the similarity of trade imbalance in favour of Beijing in both cases.
The rationale of mutual economic harm worked in Doklam but did not work in Galwan Valley. China finally retreated from Doklam because it did not want to lose the Indian market.
By 2020, China's priority had changed. Unleashing the coronavirus, it tried to dominate a ruined world. India was a part of the world it wanted to see destroyed. Rather than making a devastated economy look up to the only surviving market in the world, it now preferred a subdued state that would beg for mercy.
China is frustrated by the fact that while India has medically been among the best anti-virus campaigners, Beijing could not handle the variants of the virus it had made. While China outside Wuhan stayed largely safe in 2020, mutants of coronavirus crippled Shanghai and other Chinese industrial centres in 2022.
The US-China balance is pretty even; harm to one would harm both. The India-China balance is not; India gets nothing in return for the trade deficit.