As the Russia-Ukrainian War rages on, a “crisis” of a similar vein unexpectedly erupted in the Taiwan Strait this summer. Some observers attributed the escalation of tension to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taipei, which subsequently ignited a war of words between leaders in Beijing and Washington (81.cn, August 4). As a matter of fact, the moment Pelosi arrived in Taipei, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced its decision to hold live-fire drills in six designated areas in the waters around Taiwan (Xinhuanet, August 2).
How could the PLA organize such massive drills on such short notice? Put another way, with or without Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) might have already planned to hold large-scale military drills around Taiwan prior to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which is scheduled to begin on October 16 (China Brief, September 20). Beijing appears to have used the Pelosi visit as a pretext for the show of military force that followed. On China’s part, the best way to achieve the separate goals of intimidating Taiwan, making its bottom line fully known to the U.S., and expanding its internal power at once in the lead-up to the 20th National Congress of the CPC (hereafter referred to as the 20th Party Congress) is through military actions of various sorts. There is a compelling reason to do so. Nearly seven years into the across-the-board military reforms launched in late 2015 by President and Central Military Commission Chairman (CMC) Xi Jinping, the PLA needs to prove that it has become a more joint and combat-capable force. All these considerations might be the reasons behind Beijing’s recent launch of military drills around Taiwan in a move intended to demonstrate determination to solve the Taiwan issue once and for all ahead of the 20th Party Congress.
Notably, Pelosi’s visit to Taipei is not unprecedented, as then House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan in 1997 (Office of the President, Taiwan, March 2, 1997). However, judging from the exercise zones announced by the PRC in response to the Pelosi visit, Beijing has demonstrated an obvious intention to break the long-standing tacit agreement between China, Taiwan, and the U.S. regarding certain red lines not to be crossed by all three parties. China’s intention is to demonstrates to the other parties that the PLA is now capable of projecting force beyond Taiwan to the Pacific and the waters off Taiwan’s east coast. Such a capability can even serve the purpose of blockading Taiwan. As the PLA’s ability to target Taiwan improves, Xi may well have more bargain chips at his disposal in engaging the U.S. diplomatically during his would-be third term in office.
The Significance of New Military Exercise Zones
No sooner had Pelosi’s flight landed in Taiwan than China’s state-run media announced six areas marked off for military drills. Nevertheless, from the demarcation of the exercise zones to the kick-off of the exercises, the PRC had been preparing for the campaign of media warfare that followed (81.cn, August 4). Of the six exercise zones, those in the waters to the south and northeast of Taiwan, respectively, were supposedly for no other purpose than to simulate cutting off shipping traffic to and from Taiwan. Meanwhile, the western drill zone, which was close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait, played a role in assisting the PLA in launching ballistic missiles toward the two zones mentioned above, an action that fell within expectations.
In addition, the PLA fired long-range artillery rockets into the drill zone in the Taiwan Strait, using live ammunition. Forces at sea and in the air were employed at the same time to simulate a push across the median line of the Taiwan Strait into Taiwan’s side of the waterway. As for the drill zone east of Taiwan, the PLA use this area to practice preparations for strikes against certain strategic targets that it has always guarded against. These targets are apparently U.S. forces or those of its allies, which might intervene in an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait (81.cn, August 5). The eastern exercise zone also indicates that the Western Pacific Region is now within the PLA’s striking range.
The activities of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) in the waters east of Taiwan underscore that the PLA is now capable of attacking Taiwan from the east, as well as from the west across the Taiwan Strait. If PLA ships and planes appear in numbers off the eastern coast, Taiwan will end up encircled on all sides, which would enable the PLA to impose a maritime and possibly an aerial blockade of the island.
Chinese strategists are well aware of Taiwan’s reliance on sea traffic for energy imports and recognize that a sea and air blockade would put Taiwan in a predicament that is not easily surmountable (81.cn, August 5).
Dongfeng Missiles as a Means of Intimidation
The PLA exercises kicked off on August 4 with the firing of multiple Dongfeng-series ballistic missiles into the waters off Taiwan. As reported by the Taiwanese media, a total of eleven ballistic missiles of different types, including the Dong Feng-11 (DF-11), DF-15, and DF-16 were fired toward their target areas. According to animated news videos released by China’s state-run media, the total number of missiles fired was 16. The 16-missile count as claimed by China’s media did not match observations made by the media in Taiwan and Japan (HK01, August 5). The most possible explanation is that the animated news content as made public by China’s media was made before the release of news reports on the missile launch and that as the animation was being made, the number of missiles to be fired was known to be sixteen in all. However, some glitches or other issues might have occurred during the firings of the missiles by the PLA Rocket Force, which prevented some of the missiles from being launched.
Disinformation Campaigns and Cyber Attacks
Along with the military exercises, China also launched disinformation campaigns to disseminate large amounts of false and true information mixed together so as to form a new type of threat known as “real and fake moves made at the same time.” From the moment Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, disinformation spread online promoting rumors intended to undermine public trust in Taiwanese authorities. For example, one rumor that spread online claimed that “Taoyuan International Airport has sustained damages in missile attacks from China.” (Taiwan News, August 8) Disinformation of the kind showed up on major social media platforms and apps, while some popular convenience stores were subjected to cyber-attacks, in which their in-store screens displayed messages unfriendly to the U.S. Some Critical Infrastructure also suffered similar attacks (IBT, August 4). As the Chinese military exercises unfolded around Taiwan, word spread that major government websites had been hacked. It no doubt could be taken as a signal to Taiwan that in crisis, the island’s information security would be compromised beyond remedy. The goal is to drive the people of Taiwan to panic about uncertainties arising from disinformation campaigns launched by the enemy lurking in the shadows.
Meanwhile, China also posted photos on social media platforms to drive home the message that its warships had approached Taiwan’s territorial waters. Such disinformation, though shocking at first, was debunked shortly afterwards by Taiwan’s military and civilian observers or commentators on the basis of specialized knowledge. For instance, one of the most circulated images was of a PLA soldier looking through binoculars toward an object in the background, presumed to be a power plant in Hualie, Taiwan, which was reminiscent of a similar image that went viral just a year ago. The image showed the captain of a U.S. naval ship sitting on the deck of his ship, resting his feet on the handrail. He was watching China’s aircraft carrier, Liaoning, which was not far away. He was accompanied by his deputy, who stood next to him. The highly persuasive effects of the photo might be what the PLA tried to achieve through posting a tell-tale image of a similar nature. The image made public by the PLA of the ship and the soldier holding the binoculars was supposed to convey the impression that Chinese warships were close enough to Taiwan’s coast to be able to make effective approaches to the island and target critical infrastructure such as power facilities. Based on the soldier’s uniform, the interaction of light and shadow and the shape of the waves, the doctored image was most likely created by combining elements from three different photos (Taiwan News, August 10). Although it does not involve actual kinetic combat, propaganda warfare of this kind is significant and is part of broader efforts by the PRC to wage cognitive warfare against Taiwan.
The second major crisis in the Taiwan Strait in the last three vividly demonstrates that the concept of “asymmetrical warfare,” which has become a guiding principle for Taiwan’s military, is best applied as a framework to identify strategic directions rather than dictate equipment requirements and efforts to develop new capabilities. As a service most involved in international affairs, the PLA navy exerts influence by resorting to gunboat diplomacy or showing the flag. In such situations as the recent standoff between Chinese and Taiwan warships in the Taiwan Strait, smaller-sized ships are less suitable for deployment since they cannot sail long distances and are less able than large vessels to spend extended periods at sea (Taipei Times, August 11). Moreover, Taiwan’s military development policy is not entirely directed toward a final showdown with the PRC, but also geared toward maintaining sea control and ensuring the safety of sea traffic in the region.
Dr. Ying Yu Lin is an Assistant Professor at Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies Tamkang University in New Taipei City, Taiwan and a Research Fellow at Association of Strategic Foresight .He received his Ph.D in the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies, Tamkang University. His research interest includes PLA studies and Cyber security.