Written by Alessio Patalano.
Image credit: Public domain.
On 04 August, Chinese military authorities launched an impressive set of military manoeuvres across the Strait of Taiwan. Compared to prior exercises with a similar operational design in mind held during cross-strait tensions in 1995-96, this iteration lasted longer, pushed the operational envelope in a more aggressive direction, and was significantly larger in scale and commitment of capabilities.
Crucially, when the People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theatre Command announced the end of the second phase of manoeuvres two weeks later, the Chinese military had shown how two decades of unmatched military build-up allowed Beijing to use steel to project statecraft.
The exercises were remarkable for three main reasons. First, within a few days, multiple missile launches, naval task groups, and air formations repeatedly tested Taiwanese defences with unprecedented concentration of forces and capacity for precision. Missiles flew high in the skies over the island before splashing in sensitive areas on its eastern side, whilst numerous jets crossed the strait’s median line.
Second, the various phases suggested, at least to outside observers, that China’s recent transition to a new joint command and control structure is bearing valuable fruits. Whilst it is fair to assume that manoeuvres aimed at Taiwan would be based on established concept of operations, the exercises suggested a well-scripted and proficient operational and tactical coordination among the services.
This leads to a third and equally important observation. Their execution—alongside using drones and other interference activities, including cyber-attacks on Taiwanese government websites—suggests a political capacity to create synergy across different levers of national power. In particular, it indicates Beijing’s comfort in pressuring Taiwan in a fashion consistent with its political, information, and psychological forms of warfare.
The exercises’ scale and complexity attracted considerable international attention, renewing concerns about the risk of war over Taiwan. Leading American scholars and China watchers highlighted the unprecedented provocative nature of the act of designating half of the six splash areas to include parts of Taiwan’s territorial waters. For some, these were rehearsals for an invasion and a sombre sign of an increasingly inevitable major war over Taiwan.
Indeed, the exercises offered a clear insight into potential Chinese plans for an assault on the island and the territories it occupies. During the exercises, a staggering 146 jets crossed the median line at a point very close to Taiwan, with a 49-strong air group crossing it on 05 August alone. Both the design and the activities of these exercises would be consistent with operations akin to an economic quarantine or blockade of Taiwan or the preliminary stages of an amphibious assault. Without a doubt, the PLA was rehearsing one of its most fundamental missions.
Yet, this does not mean that war is the inevitable outcome of this escalatory path. Military exercises in China and elsewhere are aimed at honing skills relevant to the conduct of war. The PLA is serious about training for an eventuality entrusted to its personnel. This should come as no surprise, nor as a particular statement of intent about an imminent war, especially since Beijing has still some way to go on the escalation ladder. For example, the PLA did not conduct an amphibious assault as part of these exercises.
In this respect, Beijing took full advantage of the PLA’s capabilities to signal with precision that its operations will grow closer to Taiwanese air and maritime space as Taiwanese people grow confident in their sense of identity and political agency. This is perhaps how one should explain why PLA assets crossed the median line only briefly, without conducting further operations once they did. Similarly, it fired missiles that impeded normal circulation of shipping and air traffic and, if extended for longer periods, could contribute to implementing a blockade of the island. Yet, the operation did not cross that threshold.
Beijing indicated that it is ready to escalate, and more escalation is expected moving forward. This is the key takeaway from these exercises. On the other hand, since peaceful reunification remains the primary objective, it is sensible to assume that escalation seemingly remains the main item on the menu in the near future. This is not equal to suggest that growing military signalling does not increases the risk of war. A war of reunification is not improbable, but it is not inevitable yet.
This is perhaps why the main parties at the receiving end of Chinese actions acted with composure and calibration of their own. Beijing warned Washington that speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan would invite muscular responses. In turn, the administration sought to avoid antagonising the situation with Pelosi’s plane notably taking a leisurely route avoiding the South China Sea on the leg from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei. Official press conferences also sought to limit attention to the visit and its consequences, focusing instead on the intel-gathering opportunity to exercises presented to learn about the PLA.
Taiwanese official responses also aimed at shifting international attention away from the display of Chinese military power to focus on the dangers of their significance. As the exercises unfolded, Taiwanese authorities chose a strategy that highlighted Chinese provocations and exposed the challenge they presented. They provided timely information on the manoeuvres and focused their statements of concerns over the risk of normalisation of an increasingly dangerous military signalling. As some of the missiles landed in the Japanese exclusive economic zone, Tokyo behaved similarly.
How successful was the Chinese military signalling if these manoeuvres were not a prelude to war? The answer depends on what one considers the primary aim of their signalling. If Beijing intended to cater to domestic audiences, the answer remains unclear. On the other hand, if the primary aims were to strike fear and a sense of inevitability in the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people about reunification and to remind Washington of the costs of support to Taipei, the answer is clearer. Both failed. Today, only 2% of Taiwanese regard themselves as Chinese, an all-time low figure. With every act of aggression the Taiwanese feel progressively less content with reunification. Indeed, Taipei rejected the relevance of ‘one country, two systems’ immediately after the latest Chinese white paper was published, whilst defence reforms in Taiwan remain on President Tsai’s agenda.
Similarly, Washington shows no sign of faltering support and, as one specialist recently noted, the Biden administration is unwilling to have a crisis over Taiwan just because Beijing wants one.
Leading theorists of war, from Carl Von Clausewitz to Raymond Aron, tend to agree that the clouds of war gather when one does not surrender to the ambitions of another. In the strait of Taiwan, two wills are increasingly on a collision course as Beijing fails to subjugate Taipei, and Xi Jinping has not produced a narrative of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in any form attractive to Taiwan. Taiwan is an open society, a thriving economy, and a strategically located actor in the Indo-Pacific with a public audience that supports President Tsai’s limited interest in what China has to offer with reunification. Its fate matters to the United States, its allies, and indeed the international order.
What steps, therefore, should the international community take to avoid war? The first and most urgent step is to continue to shed light on Chinese activities to prevent missing the signs of an assault by force. The Chinese military threat to Taiwan is to be taken seriously and keeping a vigilant eye on China’s increased operational tempo around the island should be a priority. Relatedly, Chinese behaviour should be widely denounced and policy adjusted to prevent new levels of more assertive military signalling from normalising. Supporting Taiwan to enhance its defences and integration in global trade processes through bilateral or multilateral arrangements should be part of such policy reviews. The recent announcement of new bilateral negotiations between Washington and Taipei on a potential trade deal is an example of the relevant action.
From a defence perspective, RIMPAC, the largest regional exercise bringing together militaries from the Indo-Pacific to learn how to work together to address different security issues, could be a relevant platform for engaging Taiwan. In particular, its capacity to offer bespoke forms of participation would allow for inclusion that would reward cooperative capacity building with Taiwan instead of a confrontation with Beijing.
Thirdly, and of no less relevance, Washington should encourage its allies, especially those with a declared engagement with the Indo-Pacific, to explore ways to enhance their collective understanding of what war scenarios over Taiwan would entail regarding responses. Tabletop exercises bringing stakeholders together to explore potential scenarios are a relevant step in that direction. Yet, this process should be carried out alongside individual efforts to nurture more robust ties with Taiwan’s civilian and military authorities. Grasping what one can, should, and would do in a crisis is the most important move to prevent such scenarios from ever materialising.
Alessio Patalano is a Professor of War & Strategy in East Asia at King’s College London.