Three French-made Mirage 2000 fighter jets taxi onto a runway in front of a hangar at Hsinchu Air Force Base on August 5, 2022. China conducted its largest-ever military exercises around Taiwan, despite condemnation by the United States, Japan and the European Union.
Sam Yeh | AFP | Getty Images
The last time Beijing-Washington tensions over Taiwan ran high, the US Navy sent warships through the Taiwan Strait and China couldn’t help it.
Those days are over.
The Chinese military has undergone a transformation since the mid-1990s, when a crisis erupted over the Taiwan president’s visit to the US, prompting an angry response from Beijing.
“It’s a very different situation now,” said Michele Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration. “It is a much more contentious and much more deadly environment for our troops.”
Unlike his predecessors, Chinese President Xi Jinping now has serious military power at his disposal, including missiles that can kill ships, a massive navy and an increasingly capable air force. That new military force is changing strategic calculation for the US and Taiwan, increasing the potential risks of conflict or miscalculation, former officials and experts say.
During the 1995-96 crisis, following current tensions, China conducted live-fire military exercises, issued stern warnings to Taipei and launched missiles into Taiwanese waters.
But the US military responded with the greatest show of force since the Vietnam War, sending a series of warships to the area, including two aircraft carrier groups. The aircraft carrier Nimitz and other battleships sailed through the narrow waterway that separates China and Taiwan, bringing home the idea of America’s military dominance.
“Beijing should know that the strongest military power in the Western Pacific is the United States,” said then Secretary of Defense William Perry.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the time was a low-tech, slow-moving fighting force that was no match for the US military, with a lackluster navy and air force unable to venture too far from China’s coastline, former and current US officials said. .
“They realized they were vulnerable, that the Americans could pilot aircraft carriers right in front of them, and there was nothing they could do about it,” said Matthew Kroenig, who served as an intelligence and defense official in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. administrations.
The Chinese, stunned by the high-tech demonstration of the US military in the first Gulf War, “went to school the American way of war” and began a concerted effort to invest in their military and – most importantly – to strengthen their position in the military. Taiwan Strait, Kroenig said.
Beijing learned some lessons from the 1995-96 crisis and concluded that it needed satellite surveillance and other intelligence to spot opponents on the horizon, and a “blue water” naval and air force capable of crossing the western Pacific. to sail and fly, according to David Finkelstein, director of China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at CNA, an independent research institute.
“The PLA Navy has made remarkable strides since 1995 and 1996. It’s actually mind-boggling how quickly the PLA Navy has built itself up. And of course, the PLA Air Force almost never flew over water in ’95-96,” said Finkelstein, a retired US Army officer.
Gene. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described China’s dramatic rise as a military power as a strategic earthquake.
“We are witnessing, in my opinion, we are witnessing one of the greatest shifts in global geostrategic power the world has experienced,” Milley said last year.
The Chinese military is now “very formidable, especially in and around its home waters, especially near Taiwan,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former NATO commander.
The Chinese navy now has more ships than the US, he said. While U.S. Navy ships are larger and more sophisticated, with more experienced crews and commanders, “quantity has a quality all its own,” said Stavridis, an analyst with NBC News.
China is currently building amphibious ships and helicopters to stage a potential large-scale invasion of Taiwan, experts say, but whether the PLA is capable of such a feat remains a matter of debate.
During the 1995-96 crisis, China lost communications with one of its missiles and was determined to move away from global positioning systems linked to the US, said Matthew Funaiole, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International think tank. studies. “It got them thinking that ‘we can’t rely on technology from other countries,'” he said.
Officials in the US and Taiwan must now reckon with a much more deadly and agile Chinese military that could deny America the ability to deploy warships or aircraft with impunity, and even operate safely from bases in the region, Funaiole and other experts said. . .
“The game has changed in terms of how stacked the deck is for the US. It’s much more of a tie. Whatever the US does, China has options,” Funaiole said.
Outraged by Chairman Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week, China has launched large-scale, live-fire military exercises, including ballistic missile launches, that surpassed exercises in the 1995-96 standoff. The exercises will take place in the waters around Taiwan to the north, east and south, with some exercises within approximately 10 miles of the coast of Taiwan. China was once unable to conduct a major exercise in the waters east of Taiwan, experts said.
China fired at least 11 ballistic missiles near Taiwan on Thursday, one of which flies over the island, according to officials in Taipei. Japan said five missiles have landed in its economic exclusion zone, near an island south of Okinawa.
This time, the US government has made no announcements about warships passing through the Taiwan Strait. “Biden could try that, but China could put them at the bottom of the strait. They couldn’t do that in 1995,” Kroenig said.
The White House said Thursday that the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan would remain in the region while China conducts exercises around Taiwan to “monitor the situation.” But National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said a previously scheduled ICBM test had been postponed to avoid misunderstanding.
Despite harsh rhetoric between the two powers and mounting tensions, China has no intention of going to war over Pelosi’s visit and is trying to stage a show of force, not an invasion of Taiwan, former US officials and experts said.
For now, Chinese President Xi is focused on supporting his country’s sluggish economy and securing an unprecedented third term at the next Communist Party Congress later this year. But China’s new military could lead to hubris in Beijing’s decision-making or lead to a cycle of escalation in which each side feels compelled to respond with determination, former officials said.
There is a risk that Xi may underestimate US determination and believe there is an opportunity to seize or block Taiwan in the coming years before US investment in new weapons changes the military balance, said Flournoy, now chairman of the Center . for a New American Security think tank.
“I’m concerned that China is miscalculating because the Beijing story is still one of US decline, US turning inward,” Flournoy said. “That’s very dangerous, if you underestimate your potential opponent.”
To avoid such an outcome, Flournoy argues that both Taiwan and the US need to bolster their military forces to deter Beijing and increase the potential cost of a potential invasion or intervention against Taiwan.
Finkelstein said he is concerned about an “action-reaction” chain of events that could lead to a conflict that no one wants, and that the risk of miscalculation in Beijing, Taipei and Washington is “rising.”
To keep tensions under control, the US and China must engage in intense dialogue to lower temperatures, he said. “We have to talk to each other constantly.”