Do the latest Chinese military drills suggest plans for an imminent invasion of Taiwan?

Chinese military drills spark speculation of an imminent invasion, but all evidence suggests little cause for immediate concern

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(By Wikimedia Commons)

The Chinese Air Force has conducted another series of drills around Taiwan to stoke international speculation about what the short-term military aims of the Chinese Communist regime might be. One military expert has even gone so far as to suggest that preparations for an invasion of Taiwan might be underway.

On Sunday, the Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) released a video which purported to show an H-6K bomber and two Su-30 fighter jets circling Taiwan. At the same time, Chinese military aircraft flying up the Sea of Japan and into the Air Defense Identification Zones of both Japan and South Korea. South Korea has confirmed that their air force scrambled jets in response and Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said Japan also scrambled jets, but this is yet to be confirmed by the Japanese.  

The drill is the latest in a series of exercises which have seen Chinese military planes encircling Taiwan. And given the open hostility of the Chinese Communist Party towards the current Taiwanese Government, it is inevitable that there has been speculation as to their intentions.

Chinese air force drill prompt speculation

The planes that encircled Taiwan included two PLA Yun-8 transport planes. The Yun-8 is a transport plane but is thought to also be used for intelligence gathering. Various other reconnaissance planes have also been recorded in the Taiwan region, which suggests that China is attempting to update its intelligence on Taiwanese defensive positions.

This could be viewed as a precursor to a military invasion as has been suggested by Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong. He was quoted in the South China Morning Post as describing the recent drill as “very unusual”.

“The air force is conducting very practical and well-planned patrols near Taiwan to collect up-to-date military intelligence,” he went on. “[They are] deploying old and new generations of surveillance planes, fighter jets and other aircraft … indicating the PLA is stepping up its preparations for war against Taiwan.” 

Predictably, a spokesperson for the Chinese air force, Shen Jinke, played down the exercises, claiming they were “a regular annual training arrangement of China’s air force that accords with the relevant international laws and practices and it isn’t aimed at any particular state, region and target”.

While there is no doubt that there has been an increase in hostile military flights from Chinese military planes in and around Taiwanese airspace, there are not many experts who would go as far in their analysis as Antony Wong Dong has.

Even if some commentators are calling Taiwan a likely location for World War III, the reality is that China knows such an attack would receive a hugely adverse reaction around the world and have a negative effect on China’s position in the international community.

That is true regardless of whether or not such an assault on Taiwan were to be successful. And despite popular opinion that suggests the PLA could just walk into Taiwan if they chose to, that is not actually the case.

PLA not capable of invasion… yet

Andrew Yang Nien-Tzu, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei, told the South China Morning Post that the Chinese Air Force is still some way off being capable of engaging in what he described as “real battles” such as those it would encounter if trying to invade Taiwan.

“The intensive encirclement patrols show the PLA is on its way to becoming a combat-ready fighting force,” he said. “[But] Taiwan still has the air defense capability to counter any air strike from the mainland.”

China will be aware of this fact too. If they are serious about the idea of annexing Taiwan by force, they will also be well aware that they will only get one shot at it. And they will want to be sure everything is right before rolling that dice.

More likely these exercises are a show of force from the Chinese military designed to intimidate a Taiwanese Government the Communist Party disapproves of and also appease the loyal and hard-line Communist commentariat in China which is already calling for China to conquer Taiwan by force.

Such drills are something which Taiwan needs to keep a watchful eye on as well as taking all sensible steps to protect their state and military secrets from prying Chinese eyes. As such, the announcement that the Ministry of National Defense will no longer publicize such incursions by Chinese aircraft is a surprising one.

It is understandable that they don’t want the Taiwanese public to be overly alarmed by drills which pose no immediate threat to them. Yet the people should also be aware that the threat from Communist China remains a very real one.

It is vital too that the international community is also fully aware of the extent of Chinese hostility to Taiwan. Taiwan remains dependent on the USA and Japan, in particular, to help defend the country. Relations between Taiwan and these key allies is currently very good, with USA military strategy increasingly prioritising Taiwan and more talks on closer military engagement with Japan also taking place right now.

This could well be a factor in increased Chinese aggression towards Taiwan. But that, of course, is not a reason for Taiwan to step back from such talks. If anything, it makes them all the more crucial.

However, despite all this, the evidence suggests that the recent sensationalized headlines in the western media are over-exaggerated. It is a slow news period in the west and talk of ‘World War III’ fills column inches and attracts readers. Whether that talk reflects reality matters little.

Make no mistake, the Chinese threat to Taiwan’s national security remains very real. But there is no need to panic just yet.