August 8, 2022


The last time tensions escalated between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, the US Navy sent warships through the Taiwan Strait and there was nothing China could do about it.

Those days are gone.

The Chinese military has undergone a transformation since the mid-1990s when it crisis It erupted due to the visit of the President of Taiwan to the United States, which provoked an angry reaction from Beijing.

“It’s a very different situation now,” said Michelle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. “It’s a contested environment that is far more deadly for our forces.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, unlike his predecessors, now has serious military power at his disposal, including ship-killing missiles, a massive naval force and an increasingly capable air force. This new military force is changing the strategic calculus of the United States and Taiwan, former officials and experts say, raising potential risks of conflict or miscalculation.

During the 1995-1996 crisis, in an echo of current tensions, China conducted live-fire military exercises, issued stern warnings to Taipei and launched missiles into waters near Taiwan.

But the US military responded with the largest show of force since the Vietnam War, sending a group of warships to the region, including two groups of aircraft carriers. The aircraft carrier Nimitz and other warships sailed through the narrow waterway separating China and Taiwan, bringing the idea of ​​American military dominance home.

Then-Secretary of Defense William Perry said, “Beijing should know that the strongest military power in the Western Pacific is the United States.”

At the time, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was a low-tech, slow-moving force that was no match for the US Army, with a lackluster sea and air force that was unable to venture far from the Chinese coast, the former and present United States. Officials said.

“They realized they were vulnerable, that Americans could sail aircraft carriers right in their face, and there was nothing they could do about it,” said Matthew Kronig, who served as an intelligence and defense official for Bush, Obama and Trump. departments.

The Chinese, surprised by the US military’s high-tech display in the first Gulf War, “went to school the American way of war” and launched a concerted effort to invest in their military—above all—to bolster their position in the Taiwan Strait, Kronig said.

Beijing drew a number of lessons from the 1995-1996 crisis, concluding that it needed satellite surveillance and other intelligence to spot adversaries on the horizon, and “blue water” naval and air forces capable of navigating and flying across the western Pacific, according to David Finkelstein, Director of Security Affairs for China and the Indo-Pacific at CNA, an independent research institute.

“The People’s Liberation Army Navy has made remarkable progress since 1995 and 1996. It is really amazing how quickly the PLA Navy has been built. Of course in 95 and ’96, the PLA Air Force almost never flew over water,” Finkelstein said. He is a retired US Army officer.

General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described China’s dramatic rise as a military power as a strategic earthquake.

“We are witnessing, in my opinion, one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has seen,” Milley said last year.

James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former NATO commander, said the Chinese military is now “extremely formidable especially in and around local waters, particularly near Taiwan.”

He said the Chinese Navy now has more ships than the United States. Although the US Navy’s ships are larger and more advanced, with more experienced crews and captains, “the quantity has a quality of its own,” said Stavridis, an analyst with NBC News.

Experts say China is currently building amphibious ships and helicopters to be able to launch a possible all-out invasion of Taiwan, although whether the People’s Liberation Army is capable of such a feat remains a matter of debate.

Matthew said that during the 1995-1996 crisis, China lost contact with one of its missiles, and came out determined to distance itself from the global positioning systems tied to the United States. Funaiole, a Chinese expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It made them think that we can’t rely on technology from other countries,” he said.

Funayol and other experts said that officials in the United States and Taiwan must now factor in a more lethal and agile Chinese army that could deny America the ability to deploy warships or aircraft with impunity, and even operate safely from bases in the region. .

“It has changed the game in terms of how stacked the cards are for the US, it’s more of an equal game. Whatever the US does, China has options,” Funayol said.

Angry over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week, China launched large-scale live-fire military exercises, including ballistic missile launches, that went far beyond the drills conducted in the 1995-1996 confrontation. The drills are located in the waters around Taiwan to the north, east and south, with some drills about 10 miles off the coast of Taiwan. Experts said that China once lacked the ability to conduct significant maneuvering in the waters east of Taiwan.

China on Thursday fired at least 11 ballistic missiles near Taiwan, one of which flew over the island, according to officials in Taipei. Japan said five missiles landed in the economic exclusion zone, near the southern island of Okinawa.

This time, the US government made no announcements of the warships moving through the Taiwan Strait. Biden could try to do that, but China could put them at the bottom of the strait. “It’s something they couldn’t do in 1995,” Kronig said.

The White House said Thursday that the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan will remain in the region while China conducts exercises around Taiwan to “monitor the situation.” But National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said a previously scheduled ICBM test had been postponed to avoid any misunderstanding.

Former US officials and experts said that despite the sharp rhetoric between the two powers and escalating tensions, China is not looking to start a war over Pelosi’s visit and is seeking a show of force rather than an invasion of Taiwan.

For now, Chinese President Xi is focused on shoring up his country’s stagnant economy and securing an unprecedented third term at the upcoming Communist Party congress later this year. Former officials said China’s new military could create overconfidence in Beijing’s decision-making or lead to a cycle of escalation in which each side feels compelled to respond in order to show resolve.

Flournoy, now head of the center, said there was a risk that Xi would underestimate US resolve, and that he believed there was a window of opportunity to seize or blockade Taiwan in the next few years before US investments in new weapons alter the military balance. For a new American security think tank.

“I worry about China’s miscalculation because the narrative in Beijing is still one of American decline, and the United States is turning inward,” Flournoy said. “It is very dangerous, if you underestimate your potential opponent.”

To prevent such an outcome, Flournoy argues, both Taiwan and the United States need to bolster their military forces to deter Beijing and raise the potential cost of any possible invasion or intervention against Taiwan.

Finkelstein said he is concerned about a chain of “action and reaction” events that could lead to a conflict that no one wants, and that the risk of miscalculation in Beijing, Taipei and Washington “rises to the sky.”

In order to control tensions, he said, the United States and China need to pursue an intense dialogue to bring the temperature down. “We need to talk to each other constantly.”



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