Taiwan’s military exercise sends three loud and clear messages – to China, the US and its own people
Michal Thim says given that military force might be China’s only option in its pursuit of Taiwan, the island’s recent Han Kuang exercise signals its battle readiness
On the back of the expected Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, the Han Kuang military exercise in Taiwan served as a reminder that the Korean peninsula is not the only hotspot in East Asia. The exercise, from June 4 to June 9, was the largest in recent history. While it is held annually, recent developments underline the need for Taiwan’s military to put its combat preparedness on display.
This year’s drill is the third of Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency and takes place amid Beijing’s military posturing vis-à-vis Taiwan in the form of long-range bomber patrols encircling Taiwan’s amphibious assault drill on the Fujian coast. Taiwan can’t afford to ignore developments in the South China Sea either, after Beijing proceeded with the militarisation of its man-made islands, despite Chinese officials’ past statements to the contrary.
Using the People’s Liberation Army is not the only tool in Beijing’s campaign to pressure Taiwan. Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic and Panama have switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing this year. And scores of airlines have changed their designation of destinations to reflect China’s position that Taiwan is its province.
However, whether any of that will directly affect the stance of either Taiwan’s government or its population remains doubtful. The Taiwanese public will learn to live with these measures as their impact on Taiwan’s capability to continue to function as a de facto independent state is limited at best.
It is precisely the limited success of non-military coercive measures and political incentives that increasingly narrow Beijing’s options in its desire to annex Taiwan into the People’s Republic, making military force not the last but the only available resort.
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The decision-makers in Taipei are well aware of this predicament. If Taiwan won’t give in to political and economic pressure, the deployment of force by Beijing becomes more likely. To that end, the Han Kuang exercise, and other smaller, less-publicised drills, openly address the most severe challenges that Taiwan’s defence would face.
The theme of the 2018 Han Kuang drill is a focus on joint air-sea combat operations that would play a crucial role in repelling the primary force that the PLA would send to take Taiwan. However, more important are anti-landing drills in the Tamsui area north of Taipei and the anti-airborne exercise that simulated an attack on Taiwan’s largest air force base in Taichung. This year’s innovative element is including civilian assets, such as telecommunications company Chunghwa Telecom, in the exercise.
Staging a countrywide military exercise is as much about practical matters as it is about messaging.
First, the message to Beijing is that, for all the might that its military has accumulated since the 1990s, the PLA underestimates Taiwan’s capability and will to fight at its peril.
The drill in Tamsui, held on the anniversary of D-Day when the Allied forces invaded France during the second world war, was a reminder of just how complicated an amphibious invasion is. No power has attempted a large-scale amphibious attack since the Incheon landing in 1950 during Korean war.
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Invasion of Taiwan would require effort on the scale seen on June 6, 1944. The advancement in precision-guided ammunition, Taiwan’s mountainous terrain and the low number of beaches suitable for such an assault give defenders an immense advantage. Thus, Beijing’s preferred option would be a decapitation strike: a surprise deployment of a smaller force after which Taiwan’s government is either captured or promptly surrenders.
Long aware of this, some of the Taiwanese military’s best soldiers, including the marines and military police, are pre-positioned to protect Taipei and the government. The drill in Tamsui sends a clear signal that defending Taipei and Taiwan’s government is a priority.
The exercise’s second message is for Washington. The US commitment to defend Taiwan is contingent on Taiwan’s capability to successfully fight alone in the early stage of the conflict. US intervention could take weeks, depending on the nature of early warning signs. This shows the US that Taiwan is prepared for various scenarios.
The US is engaged in messaging too, to signal to Beijing that US-Taiwan relations are as strong as ever. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis reconfirmed the importance of America’s relationship with Taiwan during his Shangri-La Dialogue speech this month. On May 31, Taiwan’s military leadership attended the appointment ceremony of the new commander of the US Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command. Moreover, Washington is considering conducting freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait.
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Finally, the third audience is the Taiwanese people. They do not need to be reminded of June 4, 1989 – another anniversary that fell during the Han Kuang exercise – to understand that military defeat would spell an end to hard-won democracy and de facto sovereignty.
However, it is also true that a military career is looked down on by many people. Military drills alone cannot address this. Taiwan’s defence ministry and the military need to engage regularly with the public to improve the image of the armed forces. Nevertheless, the Han Kuang drill shows the public the state of preparations for a worst-case scenario. Involvement of civilian elements in the exercise is a positive step.
Military exercises have always been a routine element of the cross-strait conundrum. However, they deserve attention in a changing strategic environment that makes military conflict more likely.
Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Association for International Affairs (Czech Republic) and a fellow of the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs (US)