SITUATION UPDATE 12 August, 2022 Back
Situation Update - China holds large-scale military drills following US Taiwan visit
- US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan on 2 August in what was the highest-level US diplomatic visit to the island since 1997.
- In response, China launched massive live-fire drills in six areas surrounding the island. This included the firing of 11 missiles over Taiwan.
- Fears rise over a potential imminent invasion of Taiwan by China, with Beijing hinting at potential re-unification through “force”. However, US President Biden deems this to be unlikely.
- Degradation of US-China relations after Beijing accuses Washington of reneging on its “One China Policy”. China ends cooperation with the US in military and climate sectors.
- Japan mulls amending Article 9 of post-war constitution after Chinese missiles land in its economic exclusive zone (EEZ).
On Tuesday, 2 August, US House of Representative speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan for what was the highest-level US visit to the island since 1997. During her visit, Pelosi, an outspoken critic of Beijing, affirmed that the US' "determination to preserve democracy in Taiwan...remains ironclad", wishing to make it "unequivocally clear" that the US would not "abandon" the island. For their part, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen welcomed the visit as one that will help "uphold our nation's sovereignty" against "deliberately heightened military threats" from China.
Prior to Pelosi's arrival, China's President Xi Jinping repeatedly warned his US counterpart Joe Biden against "playing with fire", seeing the visit as one that threw support behind Taiwan's "claim to independence" and therefore deviated from the previous "One China Principle". Whilst Biden insisted that nothing had changed in this regard, stressing his strong opposition to any "unilateral efforts to change the status quo", several low-level Chinese military drills were reported in close proximity to Taiwan on 2 August. Sources suggest at least 20 Chinese J-20 stealth fighter jets had breached the Taiwan Strait's median line of demarcation.
However, a significant escalation occurred on 4 August in what was later billed by China's state-run Global Times as a "rehearsal for reunification operations". An increased Chinese military presence was reported in at least six areas within 12 nautical miles of Taiwan, where more than 100 warplanes, including fighter jets and bombers, and 10 naval destroyers and frigates were stationed. The scale of the military drills was subsequently compared to that of a "sea and air blockade" by Taiwan's Ministry of Defence.
Then, in the early hours of 5 August, Beijing conducted a "conventional missile firepower assault", launching up to 11 Dongfeng ballistic missiles over Taiwan at a high-altitude. The missiles subsequently landed in the western reaches of Japan's economic exclusive zone (EEZ). Taiwan's Defence Ministry condemned the development as "highly provocative", before deploying several of its air defence missile systems in response. Two days later on 7 August, approximately 20 Taiwanese and Chinese warships then sailed in close proximity to one another in an apparent "standoff" at the strait's median line.
Whilst China's People's Liberation Army Eastern Theatre Command (ETC) had initially stated that live-fire drills would last only four days, culminating on 7 August, this was seemingly extended the following day after it conducted new anti-submarine and sea assault operations. These drills reportedly involved numerous maritime patrol aircraft, fighter jets, helicopters, and a naval destroyer.
On the same day, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported that it too would conduct drills of its own in southern Pingtung County between 9-11 August. Taiwanese officials outlined that these drills, which involved soldiers firing howitzer artillery out to sea, had long been scheduled and were therefore not a reaction to China's own military actions. The incident elicited a further response from the ETC, which announced further drills focussing on blockading Taiwan and fine-tuning its resupply logistics. Then on 10 August, Beijing finally announced an end to military drills surrounding Taiwan having "effectively tested the integrated joint combat capabilities of troops".
Analysis and Implications
Perhaps the most significant implication arising from the latest developments is that of the prospects of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, concerns that Beijing will take similar action to "reclaim" Taiwan have increased.
In April, for example, Taiwan's military produced a 28-page handbook advising civilians on how to prepare for a potential "military crisis", including where to find bomb shelters and how to stockpile emergency supplies. Then in July, following regular Chinese violations of Taiwan's Air Defence Zone (ADZ), Taiwan held its largest-ever emergency preparedness drill in New Taipei City, including mock scenarios to test its response to missile attacks. Such is the prevalence of this thought that in the wake of the latest live-fire drills, Taiwan's Foreign
Minister Joseph Wu postulated that China was merely "using the drills and its military playbook to prepare for the invasion of Taiwan".
Rather than being simply an example of Taiwan’s preparation for a worst-case scenario, China has provided support for this potential outcome. On 10 August, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) outlined that whilst it will seek to achieve the "peaceful reunification" of Taiwan "with the greatest sincerity", it will nevertheless reserve the right to "take all necessary measures". In doing so, it will "not renounce the use of force". Hinting at a potential immediacy to this, the CCP also stated in a document entitled “The Taiwan Question and China's Re-Unification in the New Era”, which was published on the same day, that it would "not allow this problem to be passed from one generation to the next". Crucially, the CCP removed a clause included in two previous iterations (1993 and 2000) of the document that had previously stipulated that Beijing would "not send troops or administrative personnel to be based in Taiwan".
Despite this, the chance of an imminent invasion appears slim. Speaking from Dover Air Force Base on 8 August, President Biden stated that whilst he is "concerned they’re moving as much as they are", "I don’t think they’re going to do anything more than they are". This appraisal was shared by Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Colin Kahl, who revealed on 8 August that the US Pentagon is yet to change its opinion that an invasion will not occur within at least the next two years.
However, scenes witnessed over the last week may nevertheless become more routine, with the ETC even acknowledging that "training and war preparation", including naval patrols of the Taiwan Strait, are set to continue for the foreseeable future. Another escalation therefore remains highly probable, especially if these naval patrols continue to violate Taiwan's maritime boundaries. This would likely draw a similar response from Taiwan, which could cause localised disruption not only to daily life in Taiwan, but also international travel and maritime trade. Indeed, following this week’s drills, several restrictions were imposed on the airspace and waterways surrounding the island, which act as key routes for global trade.
A similar military build-up may also follow in Japan. After Chinese missiles landed in Japan's EEZ on 5 August, Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishito raised a complaint regarding the “serious threats to Japan’s national security and the safety of the Japanese people" with China's ambassador in Tokyo. However, in response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has alluded to a future confrontation with Japan, specifically over territorial claims to the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands in the East China Sea, stating that having "not carried out delimitation in relevant water…there is no such thing as China’s military actions being held in or entering Japan’s EEZ”.
As is the case with Taiwan, Japan may seek to mitigate this through greater regional cooperation and integration, specifically through the expanse of the recently signed Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Alternatively, there has been talk of Japan amending Article 9 in its post-war constitution that outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes. Indeed, local media in Japan, citing unidentified government sources, has revealed that the Defence Ministry will seek a record budget of over 5.5 trillion yen (41 billion USD) for the fiscal year starting April 2023, whilst new Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada has shown desire to amend Article 9 in favour of greater "counter-strike capabilities". Such an outcome, although still largely dependent on broad support from the Japanese people, has been bolstered by the recent victory of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in elections in the upper house of Japan's parliament. Japan's military enlargement could undermine the region’s security and may encourage a similar build up among other countries, including that of North Korea.
Another potential ramification of Pelosi’s visit and the resultant live-fire drills is also the degradation of already strained US-China bilateral relations. On 5 August, for example, China severed all contacts with the US across a range of sectors after accusing it of having deviated from the "One China Principle" and supporting Taiwan's "claim to independence". The sectors affected include those pertaining to military maritime safety, climate cooperation, joint criminal investigations, and the confronting of transnational criminal organisations devoted to the smuggling of both people and narcotics. A lack of cooperation on such issues will likely have a significant impact both regionally and globally, given they often transcend international borders. Specifically, White House spokesman John Kirby called an end of cooperation on policies agreed at last year’s COP26 summit to be "irresponsible" given China and the US account for over 40% of climate change emissions worldwide.
Further exemplifying this breakdown, China's Ambassador to Moscow, Zhang Hanhui, has since referred to the US as the primary "instigator" in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine during an interview with Russia's state media TASS. Comparatively, Zhang states Sino-Russian relations have now entered their "best period in history, characterised by the highest level of mutual trust, the highest degree of interaction, and the greatest strategic importance". The comments represent a significant deviation from China's previous middle-of-the-road approach to the conflict in Ukraine, neither supporting nor condemning the invasion.
Equally, China's actions may have significant ramifications on the geopolitics of the broader Asia-Pacific region. On 3 August, China Customs suddenly halted the import of citrus fruit from Taiwan, citing harmful insects and the use of an unacceptable amount of insecticide. Beijing similarly ordered a halt to exports of natural sand, a key component in construction, to Taiwan. Economic pressure may force Taiwan to seek new partners on the international stage so to bolster its security. Indeed, former deputy spokesperson for Taipei City Government, Chen Kuan-ting, has already revealed that Taiwan is now accelerating membership bids for both the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP) so to mitigate this.
Regarding the Pacific as well, the US may seek to expand its influence so to counter a growing Chinese presence following its recent security pact with the Solomon Islands and its pursuit of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF). Indeed, the US plans to introduce the Pacific Island Embassies Act has been accelerated, with broad bipartisan support to open embassies in Vanuatu, Kiribati, and Tonga so to redress this imbalance. Previously, diplomatic relations with these countries were handled through Fiji.