Will Trump’s gestures to Taiwan ramp up military tensions with China? A defense analyst’s assessment

Be ready.
Be ready.
Image: EPA/Ritchie B. Tongo
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Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen two weeks ago, and then his remarks to Fox News indicating that the US doesn’t necessarily need to be bound by the “one-China” policy mark the first time that a US president has challenged the framework since President Jimmy Carter acknowledged the one-China policy in 1979. In response, China seems to have flexed its military muscles with growing frequency.

Chinese military aircraft have circled Taiwan twice in the past two weeks (once before the phone call) and has placed missiles (paywall) on disputed islands in the South China Sea. In the latest display of force, China sent its aircraft carrier to conduct live-fire exercises for the first time ever. China’s state-backed tabloid has also been sabre-rattling that China should be ready to use force to enforce its claims over Taiwan if there is any sign that its bottom line—that Taiwan is part of China and the international community must treat it as such—is being threatened. At the same time, the US, a major supplier of weapons to Taiwan, recently said that Taiwan should be spending more money on defense. 

To be sure, tensions across the Taiwan Strait have been higher in the past. In 1996, China conducted missile tests in the strait after the US allowed Taiwan’s pro-independence president Lee Teng-hui to visit Cornell University in 1995. Taiwan was also due to hold its first democratic presidential elections in 1996, and the missile tests were seen as a way to intimidate Taiwanese voters not to vote for Lee. Still, he won the election.

But after eight years of relative calm under Taiwan’s previous president, the Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou, Trump’s gestures toward Taiwan signal a potential new flashpoint in cross-strait relations.

Michal Thim, a research fellow with the Association for International Affairs in the Czech Republic, who specializes in Taiwanese defense and East Asian security, says China’s military is modernizing very quickly and it wants to send a message—but that doesn’t mean an invasion is imminent.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: How seriously should China’s recent military actions be taken?

I wouldn’t overstate its significance. It’s hard to tell whether these are scheduled exercises or whether China is trying to actually send some signals.

With regards to Taiwan, China trains for different scenarios all over the year. What we might be seeing is that China is choosing to publicize certain exercises more because it wants the rest of the international society to know about them.

But whether China is signaling, or whether it’s just a routine training, they have been doing this every year for about 27 years. Whatever it is, the big picture is that the main mission of the Chinese military is to train to be able to conduct various scenarios with regards to Taiwan.

What about the fact that China’s aircraft carrier just conducted its first live-fire drills?

I think it’s significant in terms of demonstrating China’s future capability.

What they have at the moment is not a significant fighting force for mainly two reasons: First, they don’t have enough trained pilots and they don’t have experience conducting operations with an aircraft carrier. You need to be able to conduct the whole support group and it takes time, it requires a lot of experience.

The second is that the flight wing on the aircraft carrier is not particularly big, it’s somewhere between 30 or 40 combat planes, and that isn’t really enough to conduct a large scale combat operation.

What has changed since 1996?

The Chinese military has modernized significantly. One point that illustrates that well is that in 1996, when the US sent its aircraft carrier toward Taiwan, China didn’t have the ability to blockade it. They are in a much better situation now. They can find the target and engage it in much longer distances than before.

What about for Taiwan?

The Taiwanese military is certainly smaller now, and one might look at the overall numbers and say that it’s weaker. I would counter-argue that the military is much better equipped now than it was before.

It has acquired significant military capability over the last 15 years, especially as it started to integrate weapons that were approved in 1990s. If we leave China out of the picture for a while, Taiwan’s military is pretty strong any way you look at it.

The problem is that its main and perhaps only threat is China. If there is one military that’s modernized faster and better, it’s China’s, so that puts Taiwan’s military modernization in a different light.

How significant is the fact that Taiwan is having an ongoing discussion about abolishing conscription [currently required for young men]?

That was a big campaign promise by former president Ma Ying-jeou. But the discussion already started before that.

Some argue that as the military is getting smaller and it’s not getting enough volunteers to enter the service, it decreases the military’s capability. Others think that the requirements of a modern military means you don’t need as many people. I think it’s somewhere in the middle.

If you look at the navy, the air force, and the land forces, the navy and air force are basically all volunteers at the moment. I would argue that it’s actually enough to have a well-trained first-response force, as long as there is some meaningful plan to engage the back-up forces, the able-bodied men who would be called to service if there’s a crisis, and mobilize those reserves.

Overall, how would you assess the current level of military tensions?

I wouldn’t be too worried about a scenario where there would be real shooting.

First, the Chinese military despite all its impressive modernization is still not ready to actually be able to execute the most demanding scenario towards Taiwan—invasion. I don’t think they would feel confident in increasing the tensions if they are not actually ready to take the big step.

Also, the Chinese military is now undergoing an organizational transition under the military reform plan that was introduced by president Xi Jinping towards the end of last year, so we will see a lot of reorganization in the Chinese armed forces.