Three French-made Mirage 2000 fighter jets taxi on a runway in front of a hangar at Hsinchu Air Base on August 5, 2022. China conducted its largest-ever military drills around Taiwan despite condemnation from the United States, the Japan and the European Union.
sam yeh | AFP | Getty Images
The last time tensions soared between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, the US Navy sent warships into the Taiwan Strait and there was nothing China could do about it.
Those days are over.
China’s military has undergone a transformation since the mid-1990s, when a crisis erupted over the Taiwanese president’s visit to the United States, prompting an angry response from Beijing.
“It’s a very different situation now,” said Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. “It’s a much more contested and much deadlier environment for our forces.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, unlike his predecessors, now has serious military might, including ship-killing missiles, a massive navy and an increasingly capable air force. This new military power changes the strategic calculus for the United States and Taiwan, increasing the potential risks of conflict or miscalculation, according to former officials and experts.
During the 1995-96 crisis, echoing current tensions, China held live ammunition military drills, issued stern warnings to Taipei and launched missiles into waters near Taiwan.
But the US military responded with the biggest show of force since the Vietnam War, sending an array of warships to the region, including two aircraft carrier groups. The Nimitz aircraft carrier and other battleships navigated the narrow waterway between China and Taiwan, driving home the idea of US military dominance.
“Beijing should know that the strongest military power in the Western Pacific is the United States,” said then-Defense Secretary William Perry.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the time was a rudimentary, slow-moving force that was no match for the US military, with a lackluster navy and air force that could not venturing too far from China’s ancient and present-day United States shores. officials said.
“They realized they were vulnerable, that the Americans could fly carriers straight ahead of them, and there was nothing they could do about it,” said Matthew Kroenig, who served as intelligence and defense chief. in Bush, Obama and Trump. administrative.
The Chinese, surprised by the US military’s high-tech display in the first Gulf War, “went to school the American way of war” and launched a concerted effort to invest in their military and – above all – to strengthen their position in the Taiwan Strait, Kroenig said.
Beijing learned a number of lessons from the 1995-96 crisis, concluding that it needed satellite surveillance and other intelligence to spot adversaries on the horizon, and a navy and a “blue” air force capable of navigating and flying across the Western Pacific, according to David Finkelstein, director of security affairs for China and the Indo-Pacific at CNA, an independent research institute.
“The PLA Navy has made remarkable progress since 1995 and 1996. It is actually amazing how quickly the PLA Navy has been built. And of course in 1995-1996, the Army PLA air almost never flew over water,” Finkelstein said. , a retired U.S. 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.
“We are witnessing, in my opinion, one of the greatest global geostrategic power shifts the world has seen,” Milley said last year.
China’s military is now “very formidable, especially in and around inland waters, especially around Taiwan,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former NATO commander.
China’s navy now has more ships than the United States, he said. Although US Navy ships are larger and more advanced, with more experienced crews and commanders, “quantity has a quality all its own,” said NBC News analyst Stavridis.
China is currently building amphibious ships and helicopters to be able to stage a possible full-scale invasion of Taiwan, experts say, although the PLA’s ability to pull off such a feat remains a matter of debate.
During the 1995-96 crisis, China lost communication with one of its missiles and came away determined to wean itself off US-linked global positioning systems, said Matthew Funaiole, an expert at the China at the think tank of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It made them think ‘we can’t rely on technology from other countries,'” he said.
US and Taiwanese officials must now reckon with a much more lethal and agile Chinese military that can prevent America from deploying warships or aircraft with impunity, and even operating safely from bases. in the region, said Funaiole and other experts. .
“The game has changed in terms of stacking the game for the United States. It’s much more of an even game. Whatever the United States does, China has options,” Funaiole said.
Outraged by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week, China has launched large-scale live-fire military drills, including ballistic missile launches, that topped drills conducted during the standoff from 1995-1996. The exercises are located in the waters surrounding Taiwan to the north, east and south, with some of the exercises within 10 miles of the Taiwan coast. China once lacked the capacity to conduct a major exercise in waters east of Taiwan, experts said.
China fired at least 11 ballistic missiles near Taiwan on Thursday, including one flying over the island, officials in Taipei said. Japan said five missiles landed in its economic exclusion zone, near an island south of Okinawa.
This time, the US government made no announcement regarding warships crossing the Taiwan Strait. “Biden might try to do it, but China might put them in the strait. That’s something they couldn’t do in 1995,” Kroenig said.
The White House said Thursday the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan would remain in the area while China conducted its 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 any misunderstandings.
Despite harsh rhetoric between the two powers and growing tensions, China is not seeking to start a war over Pelosi’s visit and is seeking to stage a show of force, not an invasion of Taiwan, former officials and experts say Americans.
For now, Chinese President Xi is focused on consolidating 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 instill overconfidence in Beijing’s decision-making or lead to a cycle of escalation in which each side feels compelled to respond to show resolve, former officials have said.
There is a risk that Xi underestimates US resolve, and believes there is a window of opportunity to seize or block Taiwan in the coming years before US investments in new weapons do. change the military balance, said Flournoy, now president of the Center. for a new American security think tank.
“I fear that China is miscalculating because the narrative in Beijing continues to be of the decline of the United States, that the United States is turning in on itself,” Flournoy said. “It’s very dangerous, if you underestimate your potential opponent.”
To avoid such an outcome, Flournoy argues that Taiwan and the United States must build up their military forces to deter Beijing and increase the potential cost of any possible invasion or intervention against Taiwan.
Finkelstein said he was worried about an “action-reaction” chain of events that could lead to a conflict no one wants, and that the risk of miscalculation in Beijing, Taipei and Washington “is mounting in arrow”.
To contain tensions, the United States and China must continue intense dialogue to bring the temperature down, he said. “We have to talk to each other constantly.”