The 19-hour Pelosi visit to Taiwan on August 2 precipitated a mini-crisis across Taiwan Strait. In response, the Chinese government encircled Taiwan with six military exercise zones, and all sea and air traffic in the zone were diverted during the exercise from August 4 to 7. The exercise was subsequently extended to August 10.
The scale and sophistication of the military exercise came as a surprise to almost everyone. Though China had announced that it would act against the visit to guard its national sovereignty, people thought the worst scenario was sending its fighters to escort the Pelosi plane when it flew near Taiwan. Instead, China mobilized around 50 naval vessels and more than 500 aircraft sorties, including drones, in addition to the unknown number of submarines and soldiers for the six-day exercise. As a result, the exercise qualifies as the largest military operation since the end of the Vietnam War in East Asia.
Joining the six exercise areas by lines shows that the exercise is a de facto partial blockade of Taiwan and an A2/AD (area access and area denial) operation cutting off any foreign military intervention from the direction of Japan, the Pacific Ocean and Luzon Strait. The exercise areas are inside the 12 nautical miles of Taiwan and situated across the implicit median line over Taiwan Strait, existing since the 1950s. The missiles fired on August 4 also crossed the heavily Patriot Missile guarded Taipei sky. Furthermore, China announced that the erstwhile self-imposed Taiwan Strait Medium Line, territorial water and airspace inhibition for its armed forces no longer exist as Taiwan is considered a Chinese territory. Any future Chinese military operations inside Taiwan will be domestic affairs.
At the end of the military exercise, the Chinese government released a 13,000-word White Paper on Taiwan. It emphasized that peaceful means of unification are the preferred policy. Still, it will take drastic measures to respond to separatist or foreign provocation when Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan is threatened.
In contrast to the last 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis in which the US sent two aircraft carrier groups to the Strait to keep the peace, the US reaction last week was hands-off. After escorting Pelosi’s flight to Taiwan, the USS Reagan aircraft carrier sped out of Taiwan immediately before the exercise started. One recalls that the US usually takes a strong position facing blockade, and it is the most experienced in blockade handling tracing back to Berlin 1948, Cuba Missile Crisis 1962 and Taiwan Strait 1996. The US behavior last week did not follow conventional operation mode.
Most pundits posited that the inaction reflects the Biden administration’s desire to avoid escalation, and the regional military balance tilted toward Chinese favor in recent years. It is a relief to the world that two nuclear superpowers with second-strike capability avoided a head-on confrontation destabilizing the world.
The four phases of the military exercise
According to many military analysts, the exercise can be divided into four phases. The first phase started with the massive precision rocket firing and missiles hitting the targeted areas within the exercise zones, and there were reported cyberattacks and drone sightings. It is presumed that in the event of a war, the targets will be the defense system of Taiwan, constituting radar systems, ports, and naval and air force facilities. Taiwan is one of the most fortified islands in the world and rumored to have more than 6,000 missiles facing China. The missiles and drones combo formed the A2/AD shield against foreign intervention in operation.
The second phase is the air force and naval exercise designed to knock out whatever residual enemy air and naval assets in the conventional air battle and sea battle setup.
The third phase focuses on using air power to tighten sea and airspace control.
The last phase is the traditional landing exercise held across the Taiwan Strait coastal provinces.
The Chinese military ended the exercise on August 10, announcing that it had completed testing the joint operation capabilities of its various military units.
The speedy large-scale mobilization supporting the exercise demonstrated the logistic capabilities of the Chinese military had improved significantly in recent years and debunked the old notion that it could not mount the logistics necessary for the large-scale cross-strait military operation. There is an ongoing debate among analysts on the military balance between the US and China across the Taiwan Strait after the exercise.
The new paradigm of warfare
The emergence of the truck-mounted high mobility self-propelled rocket launching system promises to revolutionize the role of ground fire support (the US version is Himars and the Chinese version is PHL 191). It combines the advantage of missiles on precision targeting and extended range to that of conventional artillery on extensive target area live fire support. Moreover, its low cost compared to missiles make it an ideal ground fire support at war instead of conventional artillery. The MRLS (multiple rocket launching system) provides a new low-cost live-fire support platform for a ground war.
The use of drones combining surveillance and attack functions provides an effective A2/AD enforcement mechanism. The extended stay of military drones in the air running for tens of hours, is an invaluable tool to support extended blockade operations at sea and ground. Talks over large drone swarms in the coming years will likely revolutionize future air warfare later this decade.
The Normandy-style beach landing attack across the sea might not be necessary for the future as MRLS replaces ground fire support, and soldiers can be sent via transports such as new amphibious naval vessels, airlift power and RoRo ships. The new approach to sending soldiers and firepower across a strait increases any island’s vulnerability to attack.
Airspace supremacy increasingly depends on electronic warfare as air-to-air missile capability improves beyond visual range attack and replaces dogfighting in air warfare. A country’s air force’s effectiveness in engaging in electronic sensing, attack and defense will determine the outcome of air war more than jet engine maneuverability.
The deployment of precision munition highlights the importance of a guidance system, and space is becoming an important area of great power rivalry now. The US GPS and the Chinese Beidou are the two popular systems in providing global positioning, and they enjoy an edge over other countries in future warfare. Hence, outer space and cyberspace control will become a military contention. Future armed forces structure will include space and cyberspace units in addition to the conventional army, navy and air force.
Looking into the future
War is often said to be the best place to test the effectiveness of new weapons, and military exercises come in second. The Taiwan exercise confirmed the next-generation warfare paradigm that analysts started observing with the Russo-Ukraine War. There are signs that the rising power, China, is rapidly closing the military gap with incumbent America and, in some areas, probably has leapfrogged. This phenomenon happened before during new industrial revolutions when new technologies imbued novel military hardware and introduced a new paradigm to war. We live on the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the change is happening before our eyes.
Dr. Henry Chan is an internationally recognized development economist based in Singapore. He is also a senior visiting research fellow at the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace and adjunct research fellow at the Integrated Development Studies Institute (IDSI). His primary research interest includes global economic development, Asean-China relations and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.