Three French-made Mirage 2000 fighter jets taxi on the runway in front of a hangar at Hsinchu Air Base on August 5, 2022. China has carried out its largest military drills in history encircling Taiwan, despite condemnation from the United States, Japan and the European Union. .
The last time tensions rose between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, the US Navy sent warships through the Taiwan Strait and China could do nothing about it.
China’s military has undergone a transformation since the mid-1990s, when a crisis erupted over a visit by Taiwan’s president to the United States, prompting an angry response from Beijing.
“It’s a very different situation now,” said Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. “It’s a much more contested and much more lethal environment for our forces.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, unlike his predecessors, now has serious military power at his disposal, including ship-destroying missiles, a huge navy and an increasingly capable air force. This new military might is changing the strategic calculus for the U.S. and Taiwan, raising potential risks of conflict or miscalculation, former officials and experts say.
During the 1995-96 crisis, echoing current tensions, China held live-fire military exercises, issued stern warnings to Taipei and fired missiles into waters near Taiwan.
But the US military responded with its biggest show of force since the Vietnam War, sending a series of warships to the area, including two aircraft carrier groups. The Nimitz and other battleships sailed through the narrow waterway that separates China and Taiwan, driving home the idea of American military supremacy.
“Beijing should know that the most powerful military power in the Western Pacific is the United States,” said then-Defense Secretary William Perry.
At the time, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was a low-tech, slow-moving force no match for the US military, with a lackluster navy and an air force that could not venture too far from the shores of China, the former and current US. officials said.
“They realized they were vulnerable, that the Americans could drive an aircraft carrier right in their face, and there was nothing they could do about it,” said Matthew Kroenig, who served as an intelligence and defense official in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.
Surprised by the US military’s high-tech display in the first Gulf War, the Chinese “learned from the American way of war” and began a concerted effort to invest in their military and – above all – to strengthen their position in the Taiwan Strait, Kroenig said.
Beijing learned much from the 1995-96 crisis and concluded that it needed satellite surveillance and other intelligence to detect adversaries on the horizon and a “blue water” navy and air force that could sail and fly across the western Pacific. David Finkelstein, director of China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at CNA, an independent research institute.
“The PLA Navy has made tremendous progress since 1995 and 1996. It’s actually amazing how quickly the PLA Navy has built up. And of course, in ’95-96, the PLA Air Force almost never flew over water,” Finkelstein said. , 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 greatest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has ever seen,” Milley said last year.
China’s military is now “very formidable, especially in and around its domestic waters, especially near Taiwan,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former NATO commander.
China’s navy now has more ships than America’s, he said. Although the U.S. Navy’s ships are larger and more advanced, with more experienced crews and commanders, “quantity has its own quality,” said Stavridis, the NBC News analyst.
China is currently building amphibious vessels and helicopters to launch a possible full-scale invasion of Taiwan, experts say, although whether the PLA is capable of such a feat remains a matter of debate.
During the 1995-96 crisis, China lost communication with one of its missiles and left determined to wean itself off US-linked global positioning systems, said Matthew Funaiole, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Because of that, they thought we couldn’t rely on technology from other countries,” he said.
Officials in the U.S. and Taiwan must now take into account China’s far more lethal and agile military, which can make it impossible for America to deploy warships or aircraft with impunity and even operate safely from bases in the region, Funaiole and other experts said. .
“The game has changed in terms of how the deck is put together for the U.S. It’s a much more equal game. Whatever the U.S. does, China has a chance,” Funaiole said.
Angered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week, China has begun large-scale live-fire military exercises, including ballistic missile launches, that have surpassed exercises conducted during the 1995-1996 standoff. The exercises take place in the waters surrounding Taiwan to the north, east and south, and some exercises are within about 10 miles of Taiwan’s coast. China was once unable to conduct a major exercise in waters east of Taiwan, experts say.
China fired at least 11 ballistic missiles near Taiwan on Thursday, with one flying over the island, officials in Taipei said. Japan said five missiles landed in its economic exclusion zone, near an island south of Okinawa.
This time, the US government did not make any announcement about warships moving through the Taiwan Strait. “Biden could try that, but China could put them at the bottom of the strait. That’s something they couldn’t do in 1995,” Kroenig said.
The White House said Thursday that the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier will remain in the region while China conducts its exercises around Taiwan to “monitor the situation.” However, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the previously planned ICBM test had been postponed to avoid misunderstandings.
Despite tough rhetoric between the two powers and rising tensions, China does not want to start a war over Pelosi’s visit and wants to stage a show of force rather than an invasion of Taiwan, former US officials and experts said.
Chinese President Xi is currently focused on boosting his country’s sluggish economy and securing an unprecedented third term at the next Communist Party Congress later this year. But China’s newfound military could encourage overconfidence in Beijing’s decision-making or lead to a cycle of escalation in which each side feels compelled to respond and show resolve, former officials said.
There is a risk that Xi underestimates US resolve and believes there is an opportunity to seize or blockade Taiwan in the next few years before US investments in new weapons change the military balance, said Flournoy, now president of the think tank Center for a New American Security.
“I worry that China will miscalculate because the narrative in Beijing is still one of US decline, that the US is turning inward,” Flournoy said. “It’s very dangerous to underestimate a potential opponent.”
To prevent such an outcome, Flournoy argues that both Taiwan and the US need to build up their military forces to deter Beijing and increase the potential costs of a possible invasion or intervention against Taiwan.
Finkelstein said he was concerned about an “action-reaction” chain of events that could lead to a conflict no one wants, and that the risk of miscalculations in Beijing, Taipei and Washington was “high.”
To limit tensions, the US and China must continue intensive dialogue to lower the temperature, he said. “We have to keep talking to each other.”