China’s ‘military threat’ to Taiwan ‘is much more credible than it was 20 years ago’

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Issued on: 07/08/2022 – 16:54Modified: 07/08/2022 – 17:00

Dozens of Chinese military aircraft and ships entered Taiwan’s air defence zone from Friday to Sunday, as Beijing launched its largest-ever military exercises around the island. These manoeuvres allowed Western military experts to study the modernisation of the Chinese army. 


As China’s largest-ever military exercises surrounding Taiwan were coming to a close on Sunday, Taiwan’s transport ministry said six out of the seven “temporary danger zones” set up by China were no longer in operation as of noon on Sunday, signalling a partial end to the drills. It added that the seventh zone, located in waters east of Taiwan, would remain in effect until 10am (0200 GMT) local time on Monday. Beijing had also announced that new drills will be taking place in the Yellow Sea, located between China and the Korean peninsula, until August 15. Despite some assurances from Beijing of a drawdown in its military activities, by late Sunday Taiwan’s defence ministry said it had detected 66 Chinese air force jets and 14 Chinese warships conducting drills in and around the Taiwan Strait.

This show of military force in recent days was seen as a response to the visit to Taipei of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives. Beijing views the island of Taiwan as an integral part of its territory, which must be brought back into the national fold by choice or by force. The Chinese army’s exercises were also an opportunity for Western military experts to study the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. FRANCE 24 spoke to Professor Alessio Patalano, a specialist in East Asian maritime strategy at King’s College London.

Do the Chinese military exercises provide any indication of Beijing’s ability to carry out a full-scale invasion of Taiwan?

It is clear that China’s military capabilities have gradually improved since their military exercises in 1995-96 and in the early 2000s. This time around, they have longer-range missiles and better quality ammunition (…) Although the Chinese navy can now deploy more comfortably away from the mainland, beyond Taiwan’s eastern coast, there is still a lack of information on Chinese submarine capabilities due to a lack of open sources.

The military threat is much more credible than it was 20 years ago. But it remains unclear whether the Chinese military can really carry out a full-scale, large military operation in Taiwan.

China’s military hasn’t been involved in a major conflict since 1979. Does the Chinese military have the capacity to conduct modern joint operations involving maritime, air, and land forces?

These exercises will show to what extent the 2016 military reform, which created five joint command areas, has improved these coordination capabilities. At first glance, this certainly seems to be the case.

But that doesn’t mean that this coordination will be perfect from start to finish. These Chinese military exercises lasted a few days, whereas a military operation to invade Taiwan would take much longer. As we saw with the Russian invasion plans for Ukraine, there is a fundamental difference between a plan on a piece of paper and real-life war.  

Taiwan suffers from a shortage of pilots for its F-16 fleet, according to a recent Bloomberg report, which details how Chinese aircraft incursions delay the military’s ability to train new fighter pilots. Do you think these Chinese military exercises contribute to deteriorating Taiwanese military capabilities?

Not necessarily. What you see at the moment is the result of a 10-year transition period, during which time the Taiwanese have been rethinking their own defense posture. In the mid-2010s, Taiwan made the choice to move away from conscription to a fully professional force. They’re somewhat going back on this decision, partly because Ukraine is proving that a system comprising territorial defense and some civic forces can be a better deterrent.

These transition periods cost money and create imbalances – such as the lack of pilots at one point. But the Taiwanese are aware of this and will eventually resolve this problem.

This story was adapted from the original in French.