It was specular in scale and a propaganda pick-me-up for a country mired in economic gloom.
China’s “encirclement” of Taiwan last week increased the nationalistic drumbeat by an octave. The shrill language of President Xi Jinping’s “Wolf Warriors” was only drowned out by the screeching of J-20 fighters overhead and the blast of DF-17 missile launches.
Indeed, this was a textbook example of a military exercise. But that was all it was – a drill. Moreover, it is difficult to gauge how Chinese forces would react under fire.
The last time the People’s Liberation Army was involved in a skirmish, it descended into a stone fight with Indian troops on a volatile section of the Sino-Indian border in 2020. Rocks are unlikely to sink United States carriers or bring down F-35s.
Still, China has a formidable high-tech naval force but no combat experience.
Retired US Air Force Colonel Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha outlined the challenges facing the PLA in a commentary published by War on the Rocks, a website on strategy, defense, and foreign affairs. He wrote in May:
“China lacks the capability and the capacity to handle a full-scale invasion against a defended island country. Instead of viewing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as encouragement of authoritarian neighbors, China and the United States should look at it as a cautionary tale about what happens when amateurs go to war.
“One key fact about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is that it is a Party army first and a professional army second. It has not engaged in any major ground combat action since 1979 when the Chinese military invaded Vietnam, which ended in disaster for the aggressors.
“Vietnam was able to successfully resist, causing such a high casualty count that China was forced to withdraw due simply to attrition and the inability of the PLA to supply their own forces for combat operations.
“Looking further back we find that China’s navy has never fought a combat action of any significant size, intensity, or duration. China’s air force last participated in combat operations in the 1955 Yijiangshan Campaign, when they were used as aerial bombardment assets, targeting fixed positions. China’s military still struggles with joint operations.
“It has not had to plan a logistical campaign or deal with evacuation efforts for large numbers of casualties. All of these issues together would seem to spell doom for a complex, amphibious campaign [against Taiwan].”
Between the lines: Colonel Pietrucha has a CV to back up his analysis. He flew 156 combat missions during 10 deployments. He also had two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineers, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Delve deeper: Yet the risk of conflict remains. There is a serious danger that President Xi could underestimate Washington’s resolve and either blockade or invade democratic Taiwan in the next few years. On that front, American pushback has already begun.
Gorilla in the room: “It’s very important that we contest this type of thing. I know that the gorilla in the room is launching missiles over Taiwan,” Vice-Admiral Karl Thomas, the commander of the US Navy’s Japan-based Seventh Fleet, said in Singapore earlier this week.
New normal: “If we just allow that to happen, and we don’t contest that, that’ll be the [new] norm. It’s irresponsible to launch missiles over Taiwan into international waters, where the shipping lanes [are], where free shipping operates,” Vice-Admiral Thomas pointed out.
Big picture: China’s state-controlled media has spearheaded the Communist Party’s propaganda campaign. It has blamed the US press for ramping up the crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
Distorting history: “The US media is trying to dismember Taiwan’s history. To put it bluntly, it is rooting through the garbage heap for so-called “historical evidence” in order to “use Taiwan island to contain China,” Global Times said in an editorial this week.
Facts not fiction: At the same time, Beijing has dismissed the will of 23 million Taiwanese people, who live in one of the most vibrant democracies in the world.
China Factor comment: At the heart of the Taiwan Question is democracy. The autocrats in the form of the CCP contend that only one-party rule can sustain growth and stability in China. Yet Taiwan has proved that economic success and democracy can provide a model for an alternative mainland future. Naturally, that vision leaves Xi and his cadres in a cold sweat.