China’s military drills targeting Taiwan have set a new normal, and are likely to “regularise” similar armed exercises off the coast or even more aggressive action much closer to the island, analysts have said.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been conducting live-fire exercises and other drills in the seas around Taiwan’s main island for almost a week, in a purported response to the controversial visit to Taipei by the US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.
Beijing claims Taiwan as a province. It has not ruled out taking it by force and objects to any and all foreign shows of support for its sovereignty. Taiwan has accused Beijing of using Pelosi’s visit as an excuse to prepare for an invasion.
While some drills are continuing, the big show put on last week has ended, and observers are now trying to assess how the dynamics of the region have changed, and what the future holds for cross-strait relations.
“This is about striking fear and a sense of inevitability in Taiwanese hearts and minds,” said Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy in east Asia at King’s College London. “There is, in the political messaging delivered through military means, a real risk that these more overtly aggressive steps might be normalised.”
Whether Beijing felt it achieved anything with its drills was unclear, some analysts said. A US Pentagon official said this week there was no change to their assessment that China would not try to retake Taiwan militarily in the next two years.
According to a Guardian analysis of public data from Taiwan, China and Japan, the PLA sent at least 140 planes into Taiwan’s air defence zone during the week, including 100 over the median line, an unofficial maritime line that crosses the middle of the Taiwan strait. The planes included fighter jets, reconnaissance planes, H-6 bombers and a refuelling aircraft.
The PLA navy claims it came within Taiwan’s territorial waters, which Taiwan disputes. At least 41 Chinese ships also crossed the median line. Ten PLA navy ships played “cat and mouse” around the line with 10 Taiwan ships on Sunday, according to Taipei. At least seven “batches” of one or more drones were detected over Taiwan’s outlying islands, Kinmen and Matsu, with Taiwan’s defence ministry saying flares were fired in response. Aerial drones were also seen near Japan.
“It’s impossible to do an accurate assessment of how well the PLA performed in conducting joint operations,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.
“It’s not clear who was doing command and control … They rehearsed imposing a blockade and carrying out strikes on the island, but the exercises didn’t contain all the elements that would be needed to invade the island,” she said.
Glaser added that the newly announced drills focusing on antisubmarine and sea assault operations would practise some of those capabilities missing from last week.
For now, most of the focus for observers is on the median line crossings, which until last week were a rare event. After largely respecting the line for decades, Beijing has changed its stance, denied its existence, sent its planes and ships over it at times of heightened tensions, and claimed wholesale sovereignty over the entire strait.
On Tuesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said there was concern the PLA would “routinise” such crossings. He urged the international community to push back, saying Beijing clearly aimed to control the strait.
A future full of median line crossings may not be at the same scale seen last week, but “the key is to regularise it”, says Crisis Group’s senior China analyst, Amanda Hsiao.
“This is an ongoing attempt to basically say the median line is no longer a thing.”
John Culver, a retired CIA analyst and former east Asia intelligence officer, said it was also important to note what the PLA had not done during its drills. This included crossing into Taiwan’s territorial or contiguous seas, flying warplanes over the island, or mobilising coastguard or marine militias, “which would be key for an actual blockade”.
“This could be viewed as restraint on China’s part, but also are escalation steps they’ve reserved to show even greater threat/seriousness next time,” Culver said on Twitter.
Beijing’s “notices of avoidance” for the drill – which asks commercial ships to avoid the area – expired on Sunday but the PLA did not announce a formal end, instead announcing new exercises concentrating on antisubmarine and sea assault operations. It did not say where.
The drills fed a growing nationalism in China, particularly online, as well as anti-US and anti-Japan sentiment. Dr Ying-yu Lin, of Tamkang University’s graduate institute of international affairs and strategic studies, says it would not have mattered if Pelosi arrived or not – he expected a “big show” before the Chinese Communist party congress later this year, when China’s president, Xi Jinping, will seek his third term.
“[Xi] wants to show his power, to let Taiwan and America know that the PRC is not like 25 years ago … and the PLA is rising,” Lin says. “He also wants to show his power to mainland people.”