China’s commercial ferries (mostly) still run regularly. And that’s a sign that Taiwan is safe from invasion — for now.
Beijing’s warships have surrounded the small island democracy. Combat aircraft are reaching their limits. Missiles are to be fired into hastily cleared shipping lanes around – and within – its territorial waters.
But military analysts say the warning signs of a full-blown invasion have not yet fully materialized.
“We would also see efforts to mobilize civilian ships, given the limitations of China’s own amphibious forces,” says Taylor Fravel, director of MIT’s security studies program. “In this era of real-time surveillance, there would be satellite imagery similar to that seen in the run-up to the Russian invasion.”
The tension across the straits is intense.
An accident. A misunderstanding. That’s all it takes for a clash between the armed forces of China, Taiwan and the United States.
“We are neither eager for a fight nor will we shy away from it,” says the Tawainese Department of Defense. “The People’s Republic of China announcing air-naval live fire exercises in Taiwan is making it clear that it seeks a cross-strait solution by force rather than peaceful means.
“Activities in our territory will be closely monitored… and will respond to our appropriate responses as necessary.”
For its part, China’s Eastern Theater Command issued a press release saying the war games, called in quick response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, should “common blockade, naval attack, land attack and air combat capabilities.” ” practice.
China’s most advanced guided missile cruisers and Type 055 aircraft carriers have been spotted en route to the region. Mobile ballistic missile vehicles with “carrier-killer” weapons were also seen moving towards the Taiwan Strait.
But so far the core components of a physical invasion are missing.
Troops do not gather in the major military ports. No mass gathering of tanks, trucks, and transporters was sighted. And China’s secret invasion fleet of camouflaged civilian ferries mostly stays on their trade routes.
talking the talking
The head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee last year that Beijing was likely to try to invade Taiwan within the next six years.
“I think our concerns are showing up here in this decade … the number of ships, planes, missiles, etc. that they’ve fielded,” he said.
Chairman Xi Jinping has also made dealing with his Communist Party’s “unfinished business” a central part of his reign. Taiwan is the last undefeated remnant of the 1949 civil war.
He has spent much of the last decade ensuring China has a military capable of doing what he wants. In fact, he gave it a deadline by which to prepare it: 2020.
The 69-year-old’s navy is now the largest, if not the most powerful, in the world. Its air force was modernized. His army reorganized. Islands and reefs in the South China Sea were conquered and turned into vast fortresses.
Recently, rhetoric from Beijing has heated up dramatically. Taiwan is back on the agenda. US officials recently warned that China could be planning a “strong move against Taiwan” within the next 18 months, according to a recent report New York Times Report.
However, not everyone agrees. CIA Director Bill Burns said last week that no imminent attack was expected – but added that the risk “gets higher, it seems to us, as you get further into this decade”.
go the walk
Now, only uncertainty about the US ability and willingness to intervene to restrain Xi seems to appear.
Should he decide to move, the mobilization of the Chinese army would likely be looming months in advance.
And an absolute clue would be the diversion of China’s ferries.
China launched the first of its helicopter-dock assault ships, the Type 075 class, just last year. Analysts point out that these – and their smaller amphibious assault ship cousins - are far too few to transport an invasion force into Taiwan.
But Beijing’s policy of “civil-military amalgamation” (essentially ensuring civilian infrastructure is built to military standards) means its massive fleet of roll-on-roll-off car ferries is ready for the job.
“These are vessels equipped with built-in ramps that allow wheeled and tracked cargo to be loaded and unloaded under their own power. Such ships have the potential to deliver a significant volume of power by providing access to port terminals or other lightweight,” noted Jamestown Foundation analyst Conor Kennedy last year.
“In order for China’s RO-RO ships to support an amphibious assault scenario, their ramps would need to be able to operate in water to launch amphibious combat vehicles. This capability appears to have been publicly demonstrated by the PRC-flagged vessel Bang Chui Dao in the summer of 2020.
The strategic adviser to the Center for a New American Security, Thomas Shugart, has meanwhile done the math. He has identified 34 large, military-grade RO-RO ships capable of ferrying between four and seven Chinese army brigades to Taiwan’s beaches in a day.
“Remember this is* in addition to what could be delivered via paradrop, helicopter attack and of course the PLA Navy’s traditional amphibious assault ships that would likely lead the attack,” Shugart tweeted.
signs and omens
“PLA exercises around Taiwan are intended to show that it is capable of blockading the entire island and solving the Taiwan issue through non-peaceful means if the situation becomes irretrievable,” the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece threatens Global Times.
“The exercise should be viewed as a rehearsal of the war plan… In the event of a future military conflict, it is likely that the operational plans currently being rehearsed will be translated directly into combat operations.”
Three of China’s largest RO-RO ships have strayed from their usual routes in the past month. Shugart tracked them to beaches near the Taiwan Strait, often associated with Chinese beachhead exercise events. Training their crews to deal with an invasion force is another step in being fully prepared, he adds.
At least two have since returned to their home ports.
But that doesn’t mean a rapid invasion of Taiwanese territory is out of the question.
“I think they could potentially conquer something like Pratas Island without engaging in mobilizations that would be visible at the open source level,” Shugart says. “As far as we know, there are enough LSDs out there [dock landing ships] to take something like Pratas Island – but not Taiwan.
But Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University, believes Beijing has been so successful with its “long game” tactics so far that it is unlikely to take direct action.
“Beijing can afford to wait for power in the western Pacific to swing decisively in its favor,” he writes.
“When Washington understands that the cost of defending Taiwan exceeds its capabilities, and Taiwanese officials realize that Washington no longer has an appetite for a clash with China, Taiwan will pragmatically negotiate an arrangement that Beijing can accept.
“Meanwhile, China just has to stop Taipei and Washington from trying to secure Taiwan’s formal independence. Beijing’s show of force is therefore not a harbinger of an imminent attack, but a measure designed to buy time for history to unfold.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @Jamie Seidel
Originally released as China’s response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, it’s all talk and no action — for now