China sends missiles flying over Taiwan

TOURISTS, CLAD in shorts and sandals, gathered on China’s Pingtan island. Some clutched umbrellas to ward off the sun. Those with cameras tended to point them at the blue waters of the Haitan Strait, which divides Pingtan from Fujian, a province on the country’s east coast. Their holiday snaps on August 4th captured military helicopters swarming overhead and rockets streaking into the sky. These were some of the first missiles fired from the Chinese mainland towards the waters off Taiwan in 26 years.

A plane carrying Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of America’s House of Representatives, had barely left Taiwan a day earlier when China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began shooting. Chinese bombers and fighter jets sallied out from multiple airfields. Warships conducted “strike” exercises. Others headed to the east of the island to practise a blockade. The drills, conducted in response to Ms Pelosi’s visit to the island, which China claims, are due to last until August 7th. They signal China’s strength as much as its anger. But they are not a prelude to war, and they may yet reveal something of China’s weaknesses, too.

The manoeuvres echo those that China conducted during the previous big crisis over Taiwan, which occurred in 1995-96 after Taiwan’s then-president visited America. But it is a loud and bellicose echo. The areas marked out for live fire are pointedly closer to the island than they were in the 1990s, and encroach on Taiwan’s territorial waters (see map).

In the first days of the crisis in July 1995, China fired just six missiles, one of which malfunctioned. On August 4th it fired 16, according to China’s defence ministry, as well as many more small rockets from long-range artillery. Japan said that at least five of the missiles landed within its exclusive economic zone (which stretches 200 nautical miles, or 370km, from its shore). Of those, four had flown over Taiwan, including one that went over Taipei, its capital. That is “unprecedented in PLA exercises targeting the island and highly provocative”, says Taylor Fravel of MIT. The incursion of 22 PLA aircraft over the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait on the same day is also thought to be a record.

All this reflects the transformation of the cross-strait military balance over the past two decades. In 1995 China’s defence budget was only twice the size of Taiwan’s, even though China has around 60 times as many people. Today China spends more than 20 times as much as Taiwan on defence. By the Pentagon’s own account, the PLA has achieved parity or surpassed America in the number of ships and submarines, surface-to-air missiles and cruise and ballistic missiles it can deploy. China’s army, air force and navy increasingly practise joint operations, something that was largely beyond them in 1995. They routinely send warships and military aircraft beyond the “first island chain” which divides the East China Sea and South China Sea from the Philippines Sea to the east.

Whether all this adds up to an ability to conquer Taiwan is unknown. A wargame conducted in May by the Centre for a New American Security, a think-tank in Washington, found that in a week of fighting, China was able to land troops on the island but could not traverse mountainous terrain to reach Taipei, let alone achieve a quick victory. The conflict, set in 2027, settled into a protracted war.

Another study, published last year by Chung Chieh and Andrew N.D. Yang, a pair of Taiwanese analysts, notes that China would have to move hundreds of thousands of troops, 30m tonnes of materiel and over 5m tonnes of oil for a big invasion. It would burn through well over half a million kilograms of fuel a day. They argue that the PLA, even now, remains constrained by “insufficient air and maritime lift, vulnerable ground infrastructure, and an immature joint logistics system”.

However, they also note that the PLA is improving in all these areas and could assemble an invasion force much faster than in the past, shrinking the time Taiwan has to mobilise. As Russia’s war in Ukraine demonstrates, what ultimately matters is how Xi Jinping, China’s leader, and his generals assess their own strength. “The PLA has systematically built the capabilities it believes it needs for a war with the United States over Taiwan,” explains Lonnie Henley, formerly the senior China analyst for the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency. That belief is not unreasonable, he says. “They probably have achieved initial capability.”

The current drills are a reminder that China has many ways to harm and coerce Taiwan short of invasion, though. This week’s exercise areas cover the approaches to each of Taiwan’s three most important ports—Taipei in the north, Taichung in the west and Kaohsiung in the south—and the airspace that planes use to descend to Taiwanese airports. They “are tantamount to an air and sea blockade”, complained a Taiwanese general on August 3rd.

That is a slight exaggeration, but commercial shipping will undoubtedly be forced to take longer and costlier routes. Ship-tracking websites showed vessels studiously avoiding the areas of the exercises on August 4th, clinging closer to the Chinese or Taiwanese coastlines, though there were still plenty about. It is a reminder of how China could isolate Taiwan, which imports over 60% of its food and 98% of its energy, through an informal blockade or formal quarantine of the sort which America imposed on Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962.

There are also concerns over the vulnerability of Taiwan’s outlying islands. On the day of Ms Pelosi’s departure Taiwanese troops on Kinmen, once known as Quemoy, a group of islands just 10km from China’s coast, fired flares at Chinese drones overhead. The next day Chinese missiles were fired near Taiwan’s Matsu archipelago, parts of which are less than 20km from the mainland. The Penghu islands, closer to Taiwan proper, are another potential target. They constitute “a fortress capable of cutting into the flanks of [Chinese] invasion fleets”, writes Ian Easton in “The Chinese Invasion Threat”, his book on the subject.

That such ominous scenarios are receiving fresh attention may be a source of satisfaction to Mr Xi, who is months away from a Communist Party congress at which he will seek a third term as leader. He cannot afford to look weak. But he also wants stability. The drills are probably better understood as an extension of an intimidation campaign, one that long preceded Ms Pelosi’s trip, than a run-up to war. In some ways, both America and China are showing restraint, suggests Alessio Patalano of King’s College London. Consider the American military aircraft that carried Ms Pelosi from Malaysia to Taiwan. It took a deliberately circuitous route east of the Philippines in order to avoid flying over the South China Sea, which is largely claimed by China. Though American warships were present in this sea, where they often challenge China’s maritime claims around militarised islands, this convoluted flight path kept the two issues neatly apart.

“They’ve done it in a very subtle, understated way,” says Mr Patalano, “but that’s the kind of thing that the Chinese will be paying attention to.” As Sino-American competition heats up, such tacit signalling is noteworthy. China’s response—though aggressive and, in broaching Taiwan’s territorial waters, illegal—has also not been as belligerent as some had feared. “I was actually a little bit worried that they might start pushing around the South China Sea and East China Sea,” says Mr Patalano, “harassing ships and planes.”

That may still happen. The full extent of China’s response will play out in the days and weeks ahead. Even as it lifted some restrictions on Taiwan’s eastern waters on August 4th, it continued to announce new “danger areas” for shipping. Meanwhile, the PLA’s muscle-flexing is an opportunity for its foes to take its measure. “In essence, they are telegraphing their operational approach so we can war-game ways to subvert it in future,” says Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general. The positioning of the exercise areas, for instance, offers clues as to how China might conduct a blockade, he says.

The drills themselves will give an indication of how far the PLA navy has come in its ability to conduct large-scale manoeuvres at sea, and whether the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command—established six years ago, and handed responsibility for Taiwan—can co-ordinate air, sea, cyber and space activities in the midst of a crisis. “The PLA will almost certainly use this as an opportunity to iron out issues with its joint command and control,” says Mr Ryan. “They are decades behind the West in these kinds of operations.”

But if China’s aim is to cow Taiwan into submission, its theatrics are bound to prove counterproductive. China’s missile tests in March 1996, the same month as the island’s first direct presidential election, did not dissuade the Taiwanese public from choosing the incumbent, Lee Teng-hui, whose visit to America had precipitated that crisis. China’s overheated response to Ms Pelosi’s visit is likely to have much the same effect, says Lyle Morris, who oversaw China policy in the Pentagon until last year. The exercises may accelerate efforts to boost Taiwan’s defences and ward off a Chinese invasion. “The outcomes of the crisis,” argues Mr Morris, “are all bad for China.”

The Economist

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