In the second half of June, aircraft from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) encircled Taiwan at least 13 times while surface ships carried out three combined sea and air drills in waters surrounding Taiwan.
However, since then China’s airborne encirclement exercises have come to an abrupt end, while hostile naval drills have also fizzled out.
What is the reason behind the cessation of the drills, and when can they be expected to start again?
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who is also Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary and Chinese Central Military Commission chairman, has amassed an enormous amount of power over his nation’s government and its military.
Xi, who spent 17 years as governor of Fujian Province, is not only a member of the party’s “Taiwanese affairs faction,” he is also the most knowledgeable Chinese leader on all things Taiwan since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
Xi will therefore be fully cognizant of the potential for a backlash among Taiwanese voters should China engage in any saber-rattling prior to or during the nine-in-one elections.
There is also an external factor at play — the US military and its allies.
In June, warships from the US Pacific Fleet and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted military drills in the Philippine Sea between the first and second island chains. At the end of August, the two navies conducted passing exercises and the following month carried out additional joint military drills, followed by the Exercise Valiant Shield joint drills.
These exercises amassed a variety of naval assets in the region, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, two Ticonderoga-class Aegis guided-missile cruisers and four Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers.
On Monday last week, the US and Japanese navies also started two-yearly drills called Exercise Keen Sword.
When a formation of US Navy ships — comprised of guided-missile cruisers and destroyers — sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Oct. 22, the Military Times Web site reported that the ships formed part of the USS Ronald Reagan’s carrier strike group. This meant that as those ships sailed though the Strait, the USS Ronald Reagan was providing a protective shield from a position of maritime superiority.
The scope of the US military’s drills did not stop there. On Oct. 23, a detachment from the US Marine Corps’ 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and a squadron of F-35B tactical aircraft departed from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan, passed through the Strait and rendezvoused with US warships in the East China Sea, and conducted an in-flight refueling exercise with KC-130J tanker aircraft.
While Chinese officials were uncharacteristically restrained over the US Navy’s amassing of assets within the first island chain and passing through the Strait, the reaction to the news by Chinese netizens was at the other end of the scale.
They demanded that the PLA Navy dispatch warships or test-fire missiles, and many called on the government to teach the US a powerful lesson.
This jingoistic public sentiment, the side effect of years of brainwashing and “patriotic education” by the CCP, will undoubtedly be tapped into by the PLA when it decides to resume encirclement exercises.
US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said during a visit to the Philippines that the US Navy would continue to sail through the Strait as part of its freedom of navigation operations.
However, it is worth noting that the internal and external factors that have forced the PLA to temporarily suspend its encirclement exercises will probably dissolve once the Nov. 24 elections are over.
The Republic of China Navy should draw a lesson from a near collision last month between a US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer and the PLA Navy’s guided-missile destroyer Lanzhou while the US ship was operating within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of Gaven Reef (Nansyun Reef, 南薰礁) and Johnson Reef (Chigua Reef, 赤瓜礁) in the South China Sea.
If the PLA resumes its encirclement exercises after the elections, whether with aircraft or surface ships, the nation’s military must ensure it is fully prepared for all eventualities.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the Republic of China Naval Academy and a former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Edward Jones
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