Live-fire drills around Taiwan provide insight into PLA capabilities following modernisation drive
- Three days of exercises staged in response to senior US politician Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan
- Biggest message is that mainland China can execute a blockade of island, analyst says
Unprecedented military exercises staged by mainland China in waters around Taiwan provide valuable insight into the capabilities of the Chinese military and could help the island better assess Beijing’s military strategy following years of military modernisation efforts, defence experts said.
The People’s Liberation Army fired 11 ballistic missiles directly over Taiwan, sent warplanes and vessels across the median line that divides the strait, flew drones over Taiwanese airspace and deployed at least one aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine in a simulated blockade.
Beijing regards the trip as signalling United States support for Taiwanese independence but Washington said its policies towards Taiwan remain unchanged.
Military observers said the drills were closer to actual combat than usual, and it was the first time the PLA had set up a blockade and shooting range to the east of the island.
“They are a valuable opportunity for the US and its allies to gain insight and intelligence into PLA capabilities, by observing the live-fire exercises, monitoring communications and sensor emissions, and watching the use of Chinese weapon systems, potentially including types we’ve not seen in action before,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst specialising in Chinese security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Mainland China and Taiwan split in 1949 at the end of a civil war when the Kuomintang was defeated by Communist Party forces and fled to Taipei. Beijing sees the island as part of China and has never ruled out the use of force to take control of it.
Taiwan-based military expert and commentator Chi Le-yi said the encirclement of Taiwan with six large war games provided a good opportunity for the outside world, including Taiwan, the US and Japan, to analyse the results of the PLA military reforms in the past seven years.
“It seems Beijing intends to use the war games to test the results of the reforms to see if the PLA is capable enough to conduct effective joint combat operations in wartime,” he said.
“Taiwan and its Indo-Pacific partners, especially the US, would be highly interested to know what the results are and the drills provide a golden opportunity for them to have a better picture of the ways the PLA manoeuvres its forces, what tactics it has, how it masses its troops, launches the attacks, and what new types of weapons are in use.
“I am pretty sure those watching the PLA encirclement war games are using all kinds of spying networks to gather intelligence.”
Ridzwan Rahmat, principal defence analyst at Janes, said given that five of the six demarcated exercise areas were located beyond the Taiwan Strait’s median line, the drills were a platform for the PLA to showcase its ability to carry out large-scale, coordinated military exercises with elements from all branches of its armed forces.
“I think there has been a healthy level of scepticism among China watchers,” he said. “China has the separate pieces of shiny new military hardware, but there have been doubts over whether the forces that operate this new equipment are able to deploy them as a coordinated and cohesive fighting force.
These exercises, which require close coordination between different branches of the armed services, are the opportune moment for China to strike down the sceptics.”
Timothy Heath, a senior security analyst from US think tank Rand Corporation, said the biggest message from the drills was that the PLA was preparing for and could execute a blockade of Taiwan.
“Another important message is that the drills underscore the island’s vulnerability, proximity to China, and dependence on China’s goodwill to survive,” he said.
“The drills reveal important insights about how Chinese military planners might be thinking of a contingency against Taiwan. While past drills emphasised beach landings and missile strikes, the recent drills show the importance of a blockade to Chinese military plans.”
Analysts said the drills would push US lawmakers to be more willing to support Taiwan’s purchase of US weapons, and drive Taiwan closer to the US.
“China is signalling its willingness to take escalatory steps to prevent any move by Taiwan away from China, or to coerce Taipei to accept China’s terms for unification,” Davis said. “So in spite of the drills being prompted by Pelosi’s visit, the message is directed squarely at Taipei.”