Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early-warning aircraft and Shenyang J-11 fighters on March 16 conducted a nighttime exercise in the waters southwest of Taiwan and, in doing so, came close to the nation’s air defense identification zone.
Three days later, the PLA Navy’s fleet for Gulf of Aden escort mission sailed north in the Pacific off Taiwan’s east coast via the Miyako Strait on its way home.
Meanwhile, the US carried out freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and assembled the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group with the Expeditionary Strike Group to conduct drills in the region, including EP-3E Aries reconnaissance aircraft flying near southern China and Hong Kong several times.
The clouds of war seem to be gathering over the waters extending from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea.
Situated in the eye of the storm, Taiwan needs to pay serious attention to China’s and the US’ muscle-flexing, and try to understand if these actions are pre-war mobilizations or just normal training operations.
The US military is conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to show that China’s territorial claims in the region contravene the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Such naval displays of force are routine and a continuous deployment aimed at achieving political goals, so it is not a question of pre-war mobilization.
The Roosevelt strike group and the expeditionary strike group led by the USS America, an amphibious assault carrier, were only conducting a high-intensity anti-airborne and sea-control joint-force exercise under a multithreat scenario.
In October last year, the USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike group and the USS Boxer amphibious ready group also met in the South China Sea to carry out similar exercises, so there is no need to make a fuss over it.
However, the US Air Force’s RC-135U reconnaissance aircraft that made multiple appearances in the South China Sea and the US Navy’s EP-3E Aries electronic reconnaissance aircraft that flew near Hong Kong on March 18 — both departing from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa — probably had a different purpose.
One possibility is that the deployment can be attributed to the Standard Missile 2 live-fire exercise launched by the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser the USS Shiloh in the Philippine Sea in the same week, as disclosed in a tweet posted on March 22 by the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet on its Twitter account.
Another possibility is that it might have something to do with the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer the USS Rafael Peralta, which sailed near the Yellow Sea in February and then transited from the East China Sea to the South China Sea last month.
Conducting low-speed offshore navigation and maintaining a distance of 400km of China’s coastline, the destroyer was probably collecting information about the operational mechanism of China’s anti-stealth radars deployed along the coastline from the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea.
The US reconnaissance aircraft could have also been conducting ordinary close-in reconnaissance missions.
Taiwan’s armed forces should pay particular attention to the new scenario of nighttime combat operations by the PLA’s airborne early warning aircraft and fighter jets.
In 2015, the RAND Corp think tank published a report entitled China’s Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army, which said that, even in the 21st century, the PLA cannot fight effectively at night, an operating environment that poses a high risk of failure.
However, in 2018, footage of Shenyang J-15 carrier-based fighter jets taking off with a ski-jump from the Liaoning aircraft carrier and landing with the carrier’s arresting gear at night was shown on the Military Report show on China Central Television.
The PLA Air Force has also been flying close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait at night, sufficiently showing its efforts devoted to, and results arising from, nighttime exercises.
The US military is keeping a vigilant eye on the PLA, as the latter has made significant progress not only in military equipment, but also in tactical improvement.
Under this scenario, Taiwan needs to get ready and make comprehensive war preparations, which had better be done as soon as possible to be able to respond to the worst contingency.
Although the recent Chinese and US military deployments in East Asia still fall within the scope of normalized training, the PLA Air Force’s planes flying around Taiwan is certainly a provocation, quite contrary to the opinion of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷), a retired lieutenant general.
Taiwan’s armed forces must react prudently and cautiously to the PLA’s actions.
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 Chang Ho-ming
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