Surveying the Recent Sino-American Military Interaction around Taiwan

Surveying the Recent Sino-American Military Interaction around Taiwan
By Dr. Ma, Chengkun
The PLA has increased the frequency of its aircrafts and warships appearance on screens of Taiwan military radars in last three months. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in late January, the PLA air fleet, formed mainly by H-6K, J-11 and other aircrafts, has begun its annual training flight by flying along the south edge of Taiwan ADIZ and through the Bashi Channel into the Philippine Sea. At the same time, the U.S. military also increased its air and sea activities in these areas. In coincidence, most of these activities happened just before or after closely to the PLA air and sea movements. These bilateral dynamic military interactions look just like Tango dancing between the PLA and the U.S. forces, and the tempo of this dancing is gradually becoming faster now than the beginning of it in late January.
The PLA air fleet has flied closely to Taiwan for seven times since late January. After Chinese government announced the lockdown of Wuhan on January 20, the PLA aircrafts flied through the Bashi Channel into the Philippine Sea on January 23. It’s the first flight of the PLA around Taiwan this year. After the pandemic became serious in February, such flight increased into three. During these flights, the PLA aircrafts not only intruded Taiwan’s ADIZ, but even flied once over the middle line of the Taiwan Strait and flied in the east side of the line for minutes on February 9. In late February, the PLA air fleet unpredictably took night flight in the west part of the Taiwan Strait. It’s the first time the PLA aircrafts conducted training in the Strait during night. Taiwan’s air defense system was keeping serious alert by air defense radar which was monitoring the whole flight.
In addition to aircrafts, the PLA warships have also showed their existence frequently in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean since January. The South Fleet of the PLA Navy has sent a detachment for far sea cruise training eastward from the Southern coast of China to deep Pacific Ocean. This detachment was sailing eastward in the Pacific Ocean for weeks and caused alert of INDOPACOM when it was approaching to Hawaii waters.
Other than the South China Sea and the Bashi Channel, the PLA navy has also appeared frequently in the East China Sea and the Miyako Strait. The most significant one was the Liaoning aircraft carrier fleet sailed through the Miyako Strait into the Western Pacific Ocean and passed through the Bashi Channel into the South China Sea for purpose of equipment test and operation training. After completing these testing and training missions, Liaoning was returning to its base in Qingdao following the same path of its coming.
The U.S. aircrafts and warships have always followed very soon the PLA footprints in these areas, sometimes even just ahead of their rivals. Since the PLA Navy 161 detachment started its far sea training cruise in late January, the U.S. forces has increased its surveillance activities in waters around Taiwan. The U.S. forces has not only used aircrafts to conduct ISR measures which were focusing on the PLA air and maritime activities, it has also sent B-52, and B-1B recently, to conduct combat flight from Guam to the South China Sea and the East China Sea for the purpose of delivering message of strategic deterrence to Beijing.
In additions, the U.S. warship has also passed through the Taiwan Strait more frequently than before on the name of freedom of navigation. In the past, the U.S. naval ships passed through the Taiwan Strait only occasionally and with low profile. The AIS of these ships wouldn’t be opened in order to prevent provoking the PLA. But the U.S. Navy has changed its way since the beginning of this year. Its cruisers and destroyers have not only opened AIS when they were passing through the Taiwan Strait, but also released photo pictures, which were taken on board during the passage, on official website and social medias after they left the Strait soon.
In March, the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Roosevelt and LHA America hold joint exercise in the South China Sea. The PLA Southern Theater Command organized necessary air and naval forces to surveillance the U.S. forces activities closely. After the U.S. Navy completed its mission and left from the South China Sea, and the Roosevelt returned to Guam for quarantine since the Covid-19 epidemic has already spread fast and out of control among crews on board in the end of March, the PLA Liaoning fleet left its base in Qingdao and began its far sea training in early April.
It’s interesting to watch the interaction between the PLA and the U.S. forces in the Taiwan-centric area in recent months. When one side appeared in the north, probably another side was conducting patrolling, training or surveillance measures at roughly the same time in the south. If one side flied or sailed in the east, another side should appear in the west also at roughly the same time. When Liaoning fleet sailed in East China Sea, the U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was flying through the Bashi Channel and circling in the South China Sea. When Liaoning fleet moved down southward in the Western Pacific Ocean along east side of Taiwan, the U.S. warship was passing through the Taiwan Strait. When Liaoning fleet stayed in the South China Sea, the U.S. aircrafts were flying frequently in the Taiwan Strait and the Philippine Sea.
The reason for this PLA-U.S. forces tango-dancing-like interaction is the contradiction of their strategic intention and perception. For China side, the Covid-19 pandemic has damaged very seriously the China image of international community. Most countries of the world didn’t believe the information of Covid-19 epidemic which was publicized by the Chinese government because the Chinese government intentionally hided the real situation of the epidemic in Mainland China and delivered wrong message to WHO at the beginning stage of the pandemic happened in China in January. On the other hand, Taiwan did great work on epidemic control from the beginning and successfully prevented the possible pandemic domestically. Taiwan has not only protected itself very well, it also offered necessary epidemic prevention materials to other countries which were experiencing pandemic seriously. The contrast of Taiwan’s great performance on prevention of the pandemic and the reality that Taiwan was rejected and discriminated on participating global epidemic control and other public health affairs for the past years has caused sympathy to Taiwan by most countries of the world. Many countries have urged WHO to accept Taiwan to participate global public health affairs and to accept Taiwan to become member or observer of this organization.
Beijing was highly worrying the development of this pro-Taiwan consensus in international community. Many countries criticized China and urged that the Chinese government should be responsible for the global Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, China lacks legitimacy at this momentum to reiterate its one china principle and to claim that Taiwan has no right to participate WHO anti-pandemic and global public health affairs. Besides, Xi Jinping was facing serious challenge caused by the pandemic domestically. If Taiwan successfully purchases more participation on WHO affairs because of the pandemic, it must produce huge political pressure internally. Xi will be criticized and urged to be responsible both to the domestic pandemic and the failure of preventing Taiwan from purchasing more international participation.
Thus, Beijing accused Taiwan that Taiwan is trying to pursue independence by the name of the pandemic and increased its military pressure on Taiwan. From Beijing’s perspective, the international sympathy to Taiwan is the result of political manipulation by Taiwan government for the purpose of pursuing independence. The PLA, therefore, has strong legitimacy to conduct necessary measures to show its determination of crushing Taiwan independence by force. These measures are totally defensive. The purpose of these measures are to warn Taiwan to stop its striving for more international participation at this sensitive momentum of the global pandemic. From the PLA perspective, this is the application of typical “active defense.”
The motivation of U.S. military activities is different than the PLA. From the perspective of Washington D.C., China’s intention of increasing the PLA activities in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait is to utilize the pandemic for pursuing dominance in these areas, especially at the momentum that several warships of the U.S. Navy, including 4 aircraft carriers, are under quarantine because of the pandemic on board. The numbers of the U.S. warships which can be used for operation in the Western Pacific Ocean are temporally reduced during the pandemic. This shortage has forced the U.S. forces to increase the frequency of military appearance by aircrafts. The PLA is continuously conducting air and maritime activities and is expanding its military existence. These activities are gradually changing the status of power balance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. And the PLA will replace the U.S. forces to become new dominator of these areas.
Thus, the U.S. side has to take military measure to deter Beijing’s intention of expansion during the pandemic and maintains the existing power balance in these areas. The U.S. consideration is quite reasonable. Liaoning aircraft carrier left its base and cruised for nearly one month in East Asia waters when the U.S. aircraft carrier Roosevelt was under quarantine in Guam. Moreover, Chinese government announced the establishment of Xisha and Nansha district office subordinated to Sansha city administration in the South China Sea in late April. The Xisha district office is located in Woody Island, and the Nansha district office is in Fiery Island. China is taking advantage of the pandemic, that several U.S. warships are under pandemic quarantine, to establish district offices in order to deepen its legitimacy of administration and jurisdiction in the South China Sea. If the U.S. didn’t response immediately to China’s measure, the existing status will be changed afterward, and the U.S. forces will lose legitimacy when its aircrafts and warships return to these waters on the name of freedom of navigation after the pandemic is relieved.
Synthetically, China and the U.S. are taking measures to prevent certain scenarios becoming true. The motivation of China to increase military pressure on Taiwan is not trying to take advantage of pandemic to unify Taiwan by military action. On the contrary, Beijing is deeply worrying about whether Taiwan will take the advantage of pandemic to pursue more international participation. China understands well that it’s possible for Taiwan to purchase some diplomatic reward from the global Covid-19 pandemic since Taiwan has performed greatly on anti-pandemic measures. Beijing has to contain this reward in certain degree for the purpose of preventing fatal political impact domestically which is caused by Taiwan’s diplomatic success. If Taiwan can participate WHO affairs by itself instead of under the behalf of China, it will be a fatal failure both of China’s diplomatic and Taiwan policy.
The increase of the U.S. military appearance in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean close to the east side of Taiwan in recent months is not only for the purpose of expressing its support to Taiwan’s sovereignty and security. More significantly, the motivation of the U.S. military measures is mainly to contain the PLA from establishing military dominance in these areas since China was trying eagerly to take advantage of the pandemic to expand its military existence. Although some of the U.S. military measures were taken provocatively to the PLA, for instance, the U.S. warship intruded territorial sea of Woody Island, the purpose of such movement was not to provoke the PLA intentionally. Such measures were taken because that China was continuously expanding its military existence and administrative jurisdiction in the South China Sea. If the U.S. side didn’t take counter measure, the existing status in these waters will be changed eternally. Thus, the U.S. forces activities can be viewed as measure of power balance for the purpose of maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea.

By Dr. Ma, Chengkun