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Post-Pelosi, is Taiwan any more secure?

Samuel Ng


Source: Wikicommons

One year ago, Beijing launched unprecedented live-fire and missile drills to protest then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the highest-ranking US official to visit since 1997.


On one hand, the military exercises represented a failure for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who could not pressure Pelosi or the Biden administration to cancel her trip. Pelosi maintained a strong media presence during her visit, making live television appearances alongside Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and praising the strength of Taiwan’s democracy.


Yet, Pelosi’s trip provided China with the perfect excuse to display its growing combat prowess and military intimidation tactics. Although many speculated that the exercises were a preface for a full-scale invasion, the Speaker’s visit merely marked an inflection point after which Beijing maintained a sharply escalated level of grey-zone military operations near and around Taiwan.


These operations are now commonplace, slowly eroding Taiwan’s military preparedness, draining valuable resources, and contributing to its armed force’s fatigue. All the while, the US seeks to address the island’s defence shortcomings through increased arms sales and closer regional cooperation with allies.


Boon for China


The military drills have delivered big propaganda and operational dividends for Beijing. The exercises encircled Taiwan in a quasi-blockade, confirming previous fears that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could easily cut off the island from the outside world without firing a single shot.


Taiwan’s inability to deter the drills or lessen their impact simultaneously raised questions – questions that persist today – about how the Taiwanese military would fare if conflict indeed broke out. The Tsai administration has attempted to put a band-aid on this wound by lengthening conscription from four months to one year and boosting defence spending.


The Chinese drills have also shone a spotlight on the US’ lack of a direct response, and implicitly demonstrated to Beijing Washington’s potential reluctance to militarily intervene at a later stage. The Biden administration’s response was markedly different from 1996, where during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the Clinton administration sailed two aircraft carrier groups through the Taiwan Strait and forced the PLA to cease its intimidation. This decision showed a readiness to assist Taiwan on the part of the US. However, the Crisis also prompted China to accelerate its military build-up to counter American dominance in the region.


Responding to 2022’s Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, it was understandable for the US not to once again display a large show-of-force given the mammoth changes in the geopolitical calculus and military balance. China now has three aircraft carriers, with two in active service, and the country has ever-increasing indigenous capabilities to build more advanced carriers, including those that may challenge American supremacy in East Asia. The PLA Navy also claimed the mantle of the world’s largest navy by numbers from the United States in 2021, though much of these vessels are green or brown-water crafts.


A new normal


Since Pelosi’s visit, China has remained active in Taiwan’s immediate vicinity. The PLA has since regularised incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and crossed the Taiwan Strait median line on a frequent basis, dismantling the implicitly recognised boundary between the two sides.


The PLA Air Force has also sent an increasing number of aircraft to enter Taiwan’s ADIZ, with medium to large cohorts entering the zone from all directions. This routine increase in flights has altered the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, beginning in August 2022 where a total of 446 PLA aircraft were tracked operating in the ADIZ, the highest one-month total on record. The new status quo forces Taiwan to accept that a small number of aircraft are tracked in its ADIZ almost daily, instead of the previous status quo where the presence of PLA aircraft was novel.


Further, pre-Pelosi, ADIZ violations were generally composed of special mission and support aircraft entering from the southwest region. Post-August 2022 regular violations often include more combat aircraft such as China’s J-11, J-16, and Su-30 fighter jets, crossing the median line directly instead of entering in peripheral areas like the southwest.


The PLA Navy has also increased its presence around Taiwan since Pelosi. Most notably, China's Shandong aircraft carrier, its first domestically constructed carrier, and its strike group launched “decapitation” and “encirclement” drills on Taiwan’s east coast in April 2023. Beijing launched the exercises after President Tsai transited through the United States and met with current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy after her state visit to Central America.


Former director of operations at the US Pacific Command and analyst Carl Schuster commented that “President Tsai’s visit became their [China’s] excuse to conduct exercises,” and that the April 2023 drills “are simply extensions and expansion from the August exercise,” referring to the Chinese response to Pelosi’s visit.


China’s Ministry of National Defence, in a statement on the April 2023 exercises, confirmed the connection with President Tsai’s meeting with Kevin McCarthy, noting, “we firmly oppose the U.S. side’s contact with the Democratic Progressive Party authorities in any form, which violates the one-China principle,” in reference to Tsai Ing-wen’s independence leaning party.


The April 2023 exercises also saw the J-15 fighter jets crossing into the southeast portion of Taiwan’s ADIZ, which marks the first time J-15s have entered the island’s air defence zone. The J-15 is China’s twin-jet fighter specifically designed for use on the PLA Navy’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers, and demonstrates China’s increased capabilities to launch carrier-based aircraft and aerial-naval operations against Taiwan.


From April 2023 onwards, the PLA has maintained a steady presence of vessels around Taiwan. China’s own English-language state-owned Global Times stated that a record number of PLA vessels around Taiwan averaged at four per day with a peak of nine daily in July 2023.


Source: Wikicommons

Counter-productive? International responses to the drills


While China’s grey-zone coercion tactics complicates the possible responses from Taiwan and its allies, the relentless nature of Beijing’s threats and increasing gravity have garnered greater international sympathy, translating into support for Taiwan.


Similar to the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, China’s military drills following Pelosi’s visit strengthened American resolve for further arm sales to Taiwan and the deepening of military ties between the US’ regional allies. For Zhongnanhai, the CCP’s headquarters, this worrisome trend of growing international support has produced counter-productive results.


Over the last year, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines have all moved to deepen defence collaboration with the United States – all while maintaining a watchful eye on deterring Chinese military adventurism.


The Australia-US alliance has seen a further boost in the months following the Chinese August 2022 and April 2023 exercises. In March this year, the AUKUS partners announced a timeline for Australia to acquire new nuclear-fuelled submarines, with Canberra first purchasing US-built Virginia-class subs in the early 2030s and later receiving the Australian-constructed vessels by the early 2040s. In the meantime, British and American subs are slated to drop Down Under more frequently, with the Royal and US navies stationing attack submarines near Perth in the late 2020s.


Australia has also announced plans to welcome six American B-52 strategic bombers and US investment to expand RAAF Base Tindal in the Katherine region. The base expansion coincides with Australia’s elevated regional cooperation, as the base already hosts major training operations such as Exercise Pitch Black involving Japan, South Korea, India, the US, and others.


Canberra and Washington also unveiled in late July 2023, after their 2+2 annual ministerial talks (AUSMIN), a commitment to improve logistics at Australian airfields, particularly in the strategically crucial Northern Territory, to support increases in US bomber and fighter rotations. As a whole, the latest developments mark the largest permanent American presence in Australia, reaching a level unseen since the Second World War, and is only tilted to keep increasing.


Japan and South Korea, with American support, have patched up differences and vowed to increase collaboration. During a meeting in June 2023 between the three defence ministers, the US, Korea, and Japan emphasised “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Australia has also shored up defence ties with Korea, with Canberra opting for the Seoul-designed infantry fighting vehicles as part of Australia’s modernisation efforts under the recent Defence Strategic Review.


The United States and the Philippines have also recently signed an agreement to lease an additional four bases to the US, with three located in the northern island of Luzon closest to Taiwan. These bases provide a strategic and geographic advantage to the US, affording Washington greater control over the Luzon Strait, a chokepoint for any Chinese naval and aerial access to the West Pacific.


Supplying Taiwan


Cognisant that Taiwan’s geography complicates any re-supply of munitions during a conflict, Washington has made the shift to draw from its own stash for the first time. It recently announced a US$345 million package, including man-portable defence systems, missiles, and firearms, for expedited delivery to Taipei.


Directly supplying Taiwan with arms, a legislative obligation under the US Taiwan Relations Act, Washington aims to deter Beijing from crossing the threshold from grey-zone warfare to full armed conflict. The US enjoys bipartisan and general support for the notion of a stronger and better armed Taiwan equates to a greater deterrence against China – signalling to Beijing that Washington is committed to Taipei’s self-defence.


Taiwan has also explicitly signalled it would respond with force to breaches of its territorial space, with Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) asserting in March 2023, “once they [PLA] are detected within the 12 nautical-mile territorial space, the military [Taiwan] will shoot at them.”


Is Taiwan safer?


Despite increased regional collaboration among US allies and accelerated arms delivery to Taiwan, China continues its incessant military intimidation campaign. A negative feedback loop, consisting of escalation by all parties seems to be likely in the months ahead.


Looking forward, Beijing will predictably rely on Taiwanese Vice President and 2024 presidential candidate Lai Ching-te’s (邱國正) transit of the US as another excuse to further ratchet up cross-strait tensions. Chinese ambassador to Washington, Xie Fang, told the Aspen Security Forum in July 2023 that “now the priority for us is to stop Lai Ching-te from visiting the United States,” connoting some sort of response on Beijing’s part if the transit goes ahead.


Another round of exercises, escalation, and exacerbation of cross-strait tensions would prompt Taipei and Washington to respond. The ball is firmly in the US and Taiwan’s court to display resoluteness in face of China’s military muscle-flexing.


One year on from Pelosi, Taiwan is not any safer, and the tensions across the strait are only expected to rise.


 

Samuel Ng is currently in his final year of a dual Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of International Business at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. He is also a Westpac Asian Exchange Scholar for Taiwan, previously studying at the National Chengchi University having undertaken units in Taiwanese international relations, diplomacy, and political history.


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