By Dr. Munther Suleiman and Jaafar al-Jaafari
As US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan, China was engaged in several military exercises that took place around Taiwan.
27 Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense zone on Wednesday. Chinese naval and air forces conducted live fire exercises in six zones around Taiwan, clearly threatening a possible blockade. Conventional Chinese missiles are expected to overfly Taiwan for the first time and Chinese forces entered within 12 miles of Taiwan’s shore.
Is this the beginning of a conflict between China, Taiwan, and the United States? Or is this merely a show of strength?
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who visited Taiwan as Speaker in 1997 says China’s threats are a bluff.
Speaking of his visit in 1997, he said, “They [the Chinese] backed down…Their current bluff is just that.”
Discounting the unsubstantial war talk, the evidence is with Gingrich, while China then was” far weaker economically and militarily”.
First, investors, who usually make sound financial decisions, have moved back into the market as it became obvious that China hadn’t planned anything serious like an invasion or actual attack on Taiwan’s military forces.
Second, although military exercises seem threatening, all militaries conduct exercises all year. This is the best way to conduct training and test weapons systems. Live fire is a regular part of these types of exercises so the military leaders are sure that their soldiers know how to use the weapons systems and are sure that they will work in a conflict.
The fact that China held 6 exercises around Taiwan in no way guarantees that the Chinese Navy can carry out a long-term blockade in a war.
Blockades rarely occur because they require a major naval presence that can stay at sea for long periods of time. They require large warships that can stay on station for months at a time. They require logistics ships that can carry out underway replenishment. And they require 24 hour a day air superiority to defend lightly armed logistics ships.
An excellent example of the difficulty of carrying out a blockade is the German blockade of England in WWII. Despite better submarine technology, Allied air and naval superiority in the Atlantic prevented the German U Boats from cutting Britain off from is Commonwealth allies and colonies. German attempts to conduct surface warfare with battleships like the Bismarck also failed.
Although the Chinese navy has a larger number of ships, they are lighter, have fewer weapons, and are too small to maintain station in rough seas or far from the Chinese mainland. This includes the Chinese aircraft carriers.
Not only does the US have the nuclear super carriers that outclass any other navy’s air wing, but it also has several allies with carriers that match or surpass China’s aircraft carriers.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth class carriers are larger and better than all but the American nuclear super carriers. It is the largest Royal Navy ship built and it displaces 66,000 tons. That makes it larger than the French nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle at 42,500 tons, and the domestically built Chinese carriers of 50,000 tons displacement.
Just as important, these sips will interface with US carriers and Britain has pledged to support Taiwan in a war.
Japan and Australia also have aircraft capable ships.
Consequently, there is a serious question if China can maintain a naval blockade of Taiwan.
China’s air force is also questionable. China’s aircraft are based on old Russian designs. The Chinese Shenyang J-11, which is the backbone of the Chinese air force and the aircraft regularly used to violate Taiwan’s airspace, is based on the Sukhoi Su-27. It is a high maintenance aircraft that has a shortage of spare parts. Its primary role was to defend the USSR from long range American bombers like the B-1 Lancer and the B-52 Stratofortress.
Given the Su-27’s performance in Ukraine, there is a serious question if the J-11 can outperform Taiwan’s air force.
Taiwan’s air force is hampered by older American and French aircraft. However, they have been able to purchase American air defense Patriot PAC 3 missile system.
China’s Type 99 tank is also developed from the old Soviet T-72 tank.
The fact is that the Chinese military is stronger than Taiwan’s. However, it is not a certainty that China can defeat Taiwan easily in a major conflict. True, China could take some of the smaller islands controlled by Taiwan, but at a serious economic risk as most Western nations would impose sanctions.
China has threatened economic sanctions against Taiwan by blocking shipments of food like fish or sand for its semiconductor industry. However, as China is in the middle of an economic downturn, the question is who would suffer more – Taiwan or China.
Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan posed several problems back in the United States. Clearly, this was Pelosi’s idea, not Biden’s.
The fact is that with elections coming up in a few months and Republicans expected to win control of the House of Representatives, Pelosi’s reign as Speaker is likely to end.
By going to Taiwan, Pelosi can cap off her speakership with a major diplomatic win. She is also supported by most Republicans, some of which joined Pelosi in her trip to Taiwan. This gives her bipartisan cover.
Biden opposed the trip on the advice of his military advisors, who were afraid of a confrontation with China. They countered this with the movement of the nuclear carrier USS Ronald Reagan to the area and American fighter aircraft to Japan. Two amphibious assault groups, including the F-35 fighter aircraft capable USS Tripoli and USS America, are also in the vicinity, The USS Reagan is southeast of Taiwan, the USS Tripoli is northeast of Taiwan, and the USS America is northeast of Taiwan, and close to Japan.
The problem with following the military’s advice was that backing down would show weakness to the Chinese and probably encourage them to take more aggressive moves in the future.
The future is more problematic. How far do the US and its allies support Taiwan? Korea appears to be remaining neutral as South Korea’s president refused to meet with Pelosi this week.
Several nations like Germany, Britain, Australia, and Japan have made it clear that they view Chinese aggression with concern and will support Taiwan.
If China continues to increase pressure on Taiwan, the US can start selling modern fighter aircraft to the island nation. Currently Taiwan suffers from an aging air force of older F-16 fighters and French Mirage 2000s. F-35 or F-18 fighters would be of great help, although it takes time and considerable training to make the pilots proficient in air combat in these new aircraft.
The US has sent Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Taiwan – the same that have recently devastated several Russian ships in the Black Sea. More of these missiles would make it harder for the Chinese to invade Taiwanese territory or logistically support Chinese forces after a landing.
A more advanced air defense system would benefit Taiwan as well as US naval forces sailing the waters around Taiwan. Although China claims to have fielded a hypersonic missile, there are probably few in the Chinese arsenal and it is uncertain if they are effective in a combat situation.
Meanwhile, the Chinese air defense system is questionable. The Chinese HQ-9 is derived from the Russian S-300, which is showing limited success in Ukraine that the Russians are using it for a crude surface to surface missile. The Chinese HQ-22 has a shorter range than the S-300 and is cheaper.
Of course, China can counter with economic sanctions or even a threat to closely ally itself with Russia. However, Russia is currently tied down in Ukraine and can offer little the Chinese in terms of weapon systems or spare parts.
In the end, it appears that much of China’s talk is merely a pressure buildup. China will undoubtedly continue military exercises, especially air incursions that are designed to wear out Taiwan’s air force. They will also try to show that they can blockade Taiwan if they choose.
However, as we have seen, China’s threat is more pressure than actual intervention.
The US appears to be calling China’s bluff and making it clear that US forces can intervene should China take an aggressive step.
A Chinese media outlet reported that RT criticized Pelosi for Taiwan trip and encouraged China with a saying “revenge is a dish best served cold,” which is similar to a Chinese saying, “it’s never too late for a gentleman to take his revenge.”
It seems China will be able to use the Pelosi trip as a catalyst to strengthen its position and display readiness
to use force if necessary to control Taiwan, but still prefer
to create the conditions to gain such control by peaceful means over time.
We must remember that the Chinese Communist Party has always made clear that reunification of Taiwan and mainland China is its “historical task” and, since coming to power in 2012, Xi has steadily underscored his commitment with active military maneuvers around Taiwan.