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Anticipating China’s Military Coercion of Taiwan

Anticipating China’s Military Coercion of Taiwan
 Mathieu Duchâtel
Resident Senior Fellow and Director of International Studies

China is slowly stepping up military pressure against Taiwan. How far up can China go on the escalation ladder of coercion? China has real options, a record of calculated risk under Xi Jinping, deep concerns regarding the future course of US-Taiwan relations, and a lack of realistic soft alternatives to "seduce" given the rejection of "one country, two systems" in Taiwan. This unique combination of factors makes further escalation likely, but not certain. China’s future decisions will reflect a cost-benefit analysis regarding the outcome and the consequences on Taiwan’s international position of coercive actions. This means that Taiwan has maneuvering space to maintain the status quo if it receives sufficient support from the United States and other international partners.

Squeezing Taiwan’s airspace

Since last year, and even more so since the reelection of Tsai Ing-wen in January 2020, military pressure has again taken center stage in the Taiwan Strait. A turning point occurred in March 2019 when two fighter jets from People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) intruded into Taiwan’s side of the median line. The unofficial boundary between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait had not been challenged by the PLA since 1999. The move opened a new chapter in cross-strait relations – a "new normal" (新常态) to use one of Xi Jinping’s signature terms out of context.

Since the 2019 incursion, the PLAAF crossed the line twice according to publicly released information. It happened in February 2020 and again in August 2020, in an operation designed to coincide with US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s visit to Taiwan. Such flights test the reaction time of Taiwan’s air defense. They force the Taiwanese Air Force to scramble and intercept, and thus create a risk of incident. They essentially send the message that the Chinese side does not fear the consequences of an accidental collision or a decision to take down an aircraft – the pressure to avoid escalation is on Taiwan, the defensive side. Indeed during the February intrusion, one of the Chinese J-11 fighters locked on its fire control radar on a Taiwanese F-16 jet. At the same time, China’s Eastern Theater Command has been conducting regular flights in close proximity to the median line, forcing Taiwan’s Air Force to scramble to get ready for a possible interception.

But the newest significant development is taking place in the Southwestern corner of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, close to the Bashi Channel. The PLAAF has exerted pressure on Taiwan’s air defense system by conducting circumnavigation flights around the island since the election of Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. Deployments of H-6K bomber formations escorted by fighter planes and KJ-500 early warning or Y-8 electronic warfare aircrafts aim to acquire the capacity to open an eastern front in a Taiwan conflict scenario – many Taiwanese air and sea assets are based on the eastern coast of the island.

The flights stopped during the Taiwanese presidential campaign and resumed shortly after Tsai Ing-wen won reelection in January 2020. Since May, they have again stopped even though the summer months used to be circumnavigation season for the PLAAF. This appears to be the result of a greater US American military presence in the area and in the South China Sea, where China is compelled to respond. It also explains China’s current focus on the Southwest of Taiwan. Several exercises have taken place in that zone, including the PLAAF’s first nighttime training mission. An air presence in the Bashi channel area, between Taiwan and the Philippines, sends political messages across the Strait but also towards the South China Sea. And as Taiwan’s military power is relatively concentrated in the north of the island, there seems to be an intention on the Chinese side to play with stretching Taiwan’s defense resources.

President Tsai Ing-wen has described these operations as "Chinese Communist’s aircraft harassing Taiwan".

Over the long term, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry assesses that the Chinese Air Force intends to gradually establish a permanent presence in an area strategically significant from a military perspective because it commands access into the first island chain, and is used by US planes to conduct surveillance operations of Chinese maritime activities.

President Tsai Ing-wen has described these operations as "Chinese Communist’s aircraft harassing Taiwan". Unlike Japan’s, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry does not release scramble data to the public, but it comments on specific incidents. Despite the lack of precise statistics, there is no question that the number of Chinese air patrols and the quality of training exercises is on an increasing curve in 2020. A seasonal effect – the weather conditions in the Taiwan Strait limit the possibilities of military operations from October to March – may result in cooling down the tensions after the US presidential election on November 3, but the cooling-off period may be short-lived and the risk of further coercive behavior needs to be taken very seriously.

The information space

Retired Taiwanese Air Force Lieutenant General Chang Yen-ting argues that China pursues simultaneously a tactical goal – collecting data on Taiwan’s air defense – and a longer term strategic goal, engaging the Taiwanese Air Force "in a war of attrition by putting its front-line personnel under enough pressure to force military planners to divert attention and resources from other areas". It should be remembered that in the beginning of the 1990s, the Taiwanese Air Force enjoyed overwhelming superiority and was patrolling deep into the Strait – there was no unofficial boundary in the median line of the Taiwan Strait until the 1995-1996 missile crisis. Building air superiority vis-à-vis Taiwan is a long-term goal of the PLA, that takes investment in equipment but also training exercises. The military balance perspective is important for both sides and is reflected in the actual geographic operational space of the two Air Forces, which has changed over time and continues to change.

But the psychological warfare dimension matters enormously as well. What does China seek to achieve? The spokesperson of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Ma Xiaoguang describes these patrols as a response to the Taiwanese government’s attempts to "use force to reject unification" (以武拒统). The PLA’s Eastern Theater Command communicates on operations aiming at defeating "Taiwan independence separatist activities". The extreme centralization of Taiwan policy-making under the second term of Xi Jinping means that there is a possibility of misreading Chinese intentions. Communication channels with the "Taiwan affairs office system" (国台办系统) are no longer operational, complicating threat assessment for Taiwan and the United States. The hardline official statements, combined with the uncertainties regarding who are the key players of China’s Taiwan policy, what are their views and their discussions, raise questions regarding the goals attached to military action today, and what comes next.

However, military operations speak clearly for themselves. Air force patrols and other exercises are part of China’s "cognitive domain warfare" (认知域作战). By saturating the information space in Taiwan with the idea of a risk of war, they seek maximal psychological gains. Taiwanese defense experts point to the long-term challenge of such operations on Taiwan’s resilience. Director of War College at Taiwan’s National Defense University Shen Ming-shih argues that Chinese air operations aim at "paralyzing Taiwan’s psychology. Having the Taiwanese getting used to regular air operations by the Communist military would be equivalent to inviting the PLA fighters to cross the line and invade". Lee Guan-cheng from the Institute of National Defense and Security Research concludes that China follows a two-pronged strategy. Exercises create an environment of fear, and then the responsibility of causing tension is blamed on "Taiwan’s ambitious politicians". This is supposed to create the impression that Taiwan faces a binary choice between being China-friendly and peaceful, or dangerously anti-China.

In 2020, China conducts its Taiwan policy in an environment that has considerably deteriorated by the standards of its own unification goal. The Tsai administration enjoys relatively high satisfaction rates. The US has broken with past restraint in conducting military exchanges with Taiwan and is pushing back in the South China Sea. The 2018 Taiwan Travel Act is enabling high-level visits by senior US administration officials to Taiwan. In the West, the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly enhanced Taiwan’s image and seriously damaged China’s…

This is supposed to create the impression that Taiwan faces a binary choice between being China-friendly and peaceful, or dangerously anti-China.

A piece recently published in China’s "Reunification Forum" captures this sense of vulnerability: "We should not rule out the possibility that the US under certain circumstances might encourage Taiwan independence forces to go to the extreme, nor should we rule out the possibility that the US could take the risk to initiate dangerous military operations against China". Such views suggest that military pressure constitutes an attempt to regain the initiative in the Taiwan Strait against trends that are highly unfavorable to China, at least in the short term.

Two summer exercises conducted by the PLA are a good reminder that the psychological effects matter sometimes more than the actual demonstration of capabilities. In August, the Eastern Theater Command announced live-fire exercises to be conducted simultaneously in the north and the south of Taiwan, but in reality only small scale maneuvers took place very close to the coastline of the Chinese Mainland. At the end of the month, the PLA Rocket Force test-fired anti-ship ballistic missiles DF-26B (intermediate-range) and DF-21D (medium-range) in the South China Sea. The test generated confusion regarding the actual number of missiles tested, and whether they had correctly reached their target, raising legitimate questions regarding the reliability of the guidance system of a capability that is still under development and needs high maneuverability to hit moving targets at sea.

Planning responses to coercive action

Europe should prepare for an increase of tensions in the Taiwan Strait in the coming years. The key moment will be January 2021, when China holds its annual Taiwan work conference. A year before the 20th Party Congress, a few months after the US presidential election, and the year of the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party in Shanghai. Decisions will be taken regarding the use of coercion vis-à-vis Taiwan. A full-scale invasion of Taiwan is not realistic in the next coming years – China would risk losing, and a Tsai administration could well seize the opportunity to formally declare independence. But limited coercive actions to shape public opinion in Taiwan through shock and fear are a realistic scenario. European parliamentarians and experts have called for changes in Europe’s Taiwan policy, to give more space to Taiwan and help maintain a peaceful and balanced status quo in the Strait. The above analysis leads to a complementary proposition: planning responses to future Taiwan Strait coercion scenarios should be on Europe’s agenda. What if China seizes Kinmen (the closest island territory of Taiwan to China)? What if patrols are conducted within 12 nautical miles of Taiwan’s Coast Line? What if a large-scale cyberattack successfully targets Taiwan’s critical infrastructure? Europe – particularly France, Germany and the United Kingdom – needs to avoid being taken off guard, and should think about these questions in advance with input from Taiwan, Japan and the United States.


Copyright: Sam Yeh / AFP

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