What Motivated Chinese Military Drills Near the Taiwan Strait?

11 Sep, 2020    ·   5722

Jack Kai Yui Wong contextualises Chinese actions in recent Taiwanese diplomatic and military developments

President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan continues to reject Beijing’s sovereignty claims as well as the offer of “one country, two systems.” In response, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called the possibility of Taiwanese independence a "dead-end."

Verbal hostility from Beijing towards Taiwan is not unusual. However, in July and August this year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched various military drills, a lot of which took place near the Taiwan Strait. The PLA drills occurred between mid-July and mid-August near the Taiwan Strait. It included live-fire maritime target attack drills, a beach assault in Hainan Province, and coordinated command and sea-crossing assault drills off Fujian Province. This commentary evaluates the possible intentions behind those provocations.

Diplomatic Outreach

Two broad motivations can be discerned. First, China wants to deter Taiwan from formally establishing more diplomatic relationships as well as strengthening its combat readiness. Second, China hopes to deter the US from conducting any freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) near the Chinese coast.

Taiwan has achieved some diplomatic breakthroughs in the past two months. On 1 July, it established a formal diplomatic relationship with the self-claimed East African state, Somaliland. Somaliland has hitherto lacked any international recognition, while Taiwan only has official diplomatic relations with 15 countries. This unconventional bonding met with firm opposition from China.

Taiwan has also announced the reopening of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Guam in the hope of increasing economic and cultural exchanges with the Western Pacific region. Guam, a US territory, hosts the Anderson Air Force Base, which is the backbone of the US military forward presence in the Indo-Pacific region. Both these diplomatic engagements reveal Taiwan’s determination to explore all opportunities to advance its formal, global recognition. This undoubtedly touches a nerve with Beijing.

Military Preparedness

Meanwhile, within combat readiness, the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defence frequently organises comprehensive training exercises to sharpen war-fighting and situational awareness abilities against possible Chinese aggression. On 2 July, Taiwan’s military completed a large-scale anti-landing drill in Taichung City. Two weeks later, it conducted the 36th edition of the annual “Han Kuang" live-fire exercise with more than 8,000 personnel from all service branches. Taipei had also reached a deal with the Pentagon on the sale of 444 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile systems to reinforce the country’s air defence capability.

Taiwan’s interest in consolidating its combat and defence power is not acceptable to Beijing, which explains the rationale behind the PLA drills.

US-led Naval Exercises

The drills also serve as Beijing’s response to recent US-led naval exercises. In a span of three weeks, two aircraft carriers carried out a FONOP in the South China Sea (SCS). The USS Nimitz carrier strike group conducted a passing exercise with three Indian warships in the Indian Ocean, and the navies of the US, Japan, and Australia completed joint training in the Philippine Sea.

These FONOPs not only undermine Beijing’s claim to most of the SCS but also imply that the US Navy is capable of reaching all ports. In response, the PLA demonstrated their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ability by launching a DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile in a cross-regional confrontational exercise, and staging an air defence firing exercise in China’s Guangdong Province. These drills demonstrate Beijing’s willingness to fortify China’s ‘near-seas’, and were intended as warnings to the US Navy for leading joint exercises with China's neighbours.

Looking Ahead

Tsai’s administration has recently proposed a 10.2 per cent increase in defence spending for the next fiscal year. Besides, Taiwan works closely with the US to upgrade its air force. The Taiwanese defence company, Aerial Space Industrial Corp, has opened a maintenance centre for F-16 fighter jets, based on an agreement signed with the US defence conglomerate, Lockheed Martin. Additionally, an indigenous submarine project to bolster the navy’s capability against Chinese surface vessels has also been launched.

The PLA’s rapid modernisation, displayed for example in the new Type 075 amphibious assault ship sea trials, has motivated the Tsai administration to make efforts at augmenting its own capabilities. Nevertheless, Taiwan can resist potential Chinese aggression only to a certain extent. Indeed, the US has to provide more military support to ensure Taiwan prevails if the PLA strikes.

However, the primary element in keeping Taiwan safe is Taiwanese unity. In the past, senior Taiwanese military and intelligence officers ended up in prison for selling classified information to China. Beijing’s “united front” work has then achieved significant results. If the Taiwanese cannot unite themselves to counter Chinese pressure and infiltration, no shots will need to be fired.


Jack Kai Yui Wong is a Research Intern with IPCS’ China Research Programme (CRP).