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How worried should the world be about China's war games?

William Yang in Taipei
April 10, 2023

China's three-day Joint Sword exercise saw warships and fighter jets simulate targeted strikes on Taiwan. Experts say such drills are worrying and increase the risk of military escalation.

A giant screen at a restaurant showsfootage of aircraft taking part in the 'Joint Sword' exercises around Taiwan
China's military on Monday said it had 'successfully completed' exercises around Taiwan, following three days of war games Image: Tingshu Wang/REUTERS

For the second time in less than a year, China has launched a large-scale military exercise around Taiwan .

In a clear display of military might, dozens of Chinese military aircraft flew across the median line of the Taiwan Strait on Saturday, while Chinese fighter jets and naval vessels conducted "simulated joint precision strikes" against key targets on Taiwan island and its surrounding waters.

Chinese state media said the People's Liberation Army (PLA) continues to "maintain the situation of closely encircling the island."

Additionally, the Taiwanese Defense Ministry confirmed on Monday that a  Chinese aircraft carrier group participated in the military exercise in the Western Pacific.

The development has raised concerns among local experts that China may now be able to launch an attack on Taiwan from the east, threatening the democratically governed island's ability to preserve its military capabilities.

A warning to Taiwan?

Military experts say the PLA wants to show they have the firepower to destroy key targets with the live-fire drills in different parts of the Taiwan Strait.

The three-day drill dubbed Joint Sword came in response to a meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and United States House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in the US state of California.

A fighter plane takes off from the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong in Pacific Ocean waters
China's Shandong aircraft carrier took part in combat patrols during the military drills Image: Japan's Ministry of Defense/AFP

It was shorter in duration than the military exercise that took place after former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last August.

"In order to reduce the impact of the military exercise on the region, China designed a three-day military exercise, rather than a weeklong military exercise like last August," said Tzu-yun Su, an analyst at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan.

Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group, told DW that Beijing believes the shows of military force is necessary for "deterring the US and Taiwan from engaging in more high-level exchanges and cooperation in the future." 

Taiwan and the US both condemned the large-scale military exercises on Saturday, with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen vowing to work with Washington and other like-minded countries in the face of authoritarian expansion. The US State Department urged restraint.

Apart from trying to discourage Taipei and Washington from holding more high-level exchanges in the future, some analysts think China is trying to demonstrate the various kinds of actions that it can take against Taiwan on a nearly "daily basis."

According to Ben Lewis, an independent security analyst based in the US, Beijing first responded to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting with less provocative actions, such as inspecting ships in the Taiwan Strait, before launching an encirclement-style military exercise around Taiwan after French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen left Beijing.

"It's a clear example of the spectrum of options available to Beijing to pressure Taiwan," he told DW.

People's Liberation Army spokesperson Shi Yin described the three-day military exercise — which involved a wide range of military drills and operations — as "a stern warning against the collusion between separatist forces seeking 'Taiwan independence' and external forces and against their provocative activities."

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy
China had warned of a furious response if Taiwan's president met with the US House speaker, but their meeting went ahead on April 5Image: Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP/picture-alliance

Meanwhile, Hsiao from Crisis Group said that with a large number of Chinese military aircraft crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, there will be an uptick in encounters between Chinese and Taiwanese militaries, which could increase the risk of "an unintended collision."

"Given the atmosphere of distrust and the lack of communication channels across the strait to deal with military accidents, the potential for escalation following an accident exists," Hsiao said.

Taiwan's Defense Ministry also said it's closely monitoring activities of the PLA's rocket force, as the unit is in charge of China's land-based missile system. The ministry emphasized it was responding to the Chinese military exercise "in a calm and composed manner."

Beijing may further isolate itself strategically

As Beijing reiterates its objection to any form of official engagement between Taiwan and the US, some experts have said China's increased tendency of using its growing military capabilities to achieve political objectives may be setting a dangerous precedent for the Indo-Pacific region.

"Xi Jinping is presenting Taiwan with a very black-and-white choice, which is that they either want Taiwan to be unified with China peacefully, or Beijing will invade and annex it," said independent security analyst Lewis.

Lewis added that one worrying sign is that China may decide to launch a major military exercise around Taiwan whenever a Taiwanese president meets with high-ranking US officials. "I think that's a very troubling precedent for them to establish," he told DW.

China surrounds Taiwan with military exercises

Su from the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan added that Beijing's aggressive response to the Tsai-McCarthy meeting reflects its "wolf-warrior" attitude.

"The unfavorable impression about China may push the US to increase efforts to contain China militarily," he said, adding that with Japan and the Philippines becoming important strategic partners for the US in the Indo-Pacific region, China may become strategically more isolated after the exercise.

In an interview with Fox News, US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul said China's "saber-rattling" will only "firm up" Washington's resolve against Beijing. "It has no deterrent effect on us," he said.

Lewis thinks the US Congress can help develop public support for Taiwan and ensure meetings with the Taiwanese side are productive.

"The Congress should determine what are Taiwan's needs, use the money that they've already allocated in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act and help inform the executive branch of the US government of Taiwan's needs," he said.

"This will provide major benefits to both Taiwan and the US."

Edited by: Keith Walker