The last time tensions flared between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, the US Navy sent warships through the Taiwan Strait and there was nothing China could do about it.
Those days are gone.
“It’s a very different situation now,” said Michele Flournoy, a former assistant secretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. “It’s a much more contested environment and a much more lethal environment for our forces.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, unlike his predecessors, now has serious military power at his disposal, including ship-killing missiles, a massive navy, and an increasingly capable air force. That new military power is changing the strategic calculus for the US and Taiwan, raising the potential risks of conflict or miscalculation, former officials and experts say.
During the 1995-1996 crisis, in an echo of current tensions, China conducted live-fire military exercises, issued stern warnings to Taipei, and launched missiles into waters near Taiwan.
But the US military responded with the biggest show of force since the Vietnam War, sending a number of warships to the area, including two aircraft carrier groups. The Nimitz aircraft carrier and other battleships sailed through the narrow waterway separating China and Taiwan, driving home the idea of US military dominance.
“Beijing should know that the strongest military power in the Western Pacific is the United States,” said then-Defense Secretary William Perry.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the time was a slow-moving, low-tech force that was no match for the US military, the officials said.
“They realized they were vulnerable, that the Americans could launch aircraft carriers right in their face, and there was nothing they could do about it,” said Matthew Kroenig, who served as an intelligence and defense official in the Bush administrations, Obama and Trump. administrations
The Chinese, taken aback by the high-tech display of the US military in the first Gulf War, “went to school in the American style of warfare” and launched a concerted effort to invest in their military and, above all, to strengthen its position in the Taiwan Strait, Kroenig said.
Beijing drew a number of lessons from the 1995-1996 crisis, concluding that it needed satellite surveillance and other intelligence to spot adversaries on the horizon, and a “blue water” navy and air force capable of navigating and flying across the world. Western Pacific, according to David Finkelstein, director of China and Indo-Pacific security affairs at CNA, an independent research institute.
“The PLA Navy has made remarkable progress since 1995 and 1996. It is actually amazing how quickly the PLA Navy has been built. And of course, in 1995 and 1996, the PLA Air Force almost never flew over water,” said Finkelstein, a retired US Army officer.
General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described China’s Spectacular Rise as a Military Power like a strategic earthquake.
“We are witnessing, in my opinion, we are witnessing one of the biggest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has ever witnessed,” Milley said last year.
The Chinese military is now “very formidable, especially in and around its home waters, particularly in the vicinity of Taiwan,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former NATO commander.
China’s Navy now has more ships than the United States, he said. Although US Navy ships are larger and more advanced, with more experienced crews and commanders, “quantity has a quality of its own,” said NBC News analyst Stavridis.
China is currently building amphibious boats and helicopters so it can stage a possible full-scale invasion of Taiwan, experts say, though whether the PLA is capable of such a feat remains a matter of debate.
During the 1995-1996 crisis, China lost communication with one of its missiles and came out determined to disconnect from US-linked global positioning systems, Matthew said. Funaiole, a China expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “It made them think that ‘we can’t trust other countries’ technology,’” he said.
US and Taiwan officials must now take into account a much more lethal and agile Chinese military that may deny the United States the ability to deploy warships or aircraft with impunity, and even operate safely from bases on the region, Funaiole and other experts said. .
“The game has changed in terms of how stacked the deck is for the US It’s much more of an even game. Whatever the United States does, China has options,” Funaiole said.
Outraged by the visit of the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan This week, China has launched large-scale live-fire military exercises, including ballistic missile launches, which have surpassed exercises conducted in the 1995-1996 confrontation. The exercises are located in waters surrounding Taiwan to the north, east, and south, with some of the exercises within about 10 miles of Taiwan’s coastline. China once lacked the capacity to conduct a major exercise in waters east of Taiwan, experts said.
China fired at least 11 ballistic missiles near Taiwan on Thursday, one of which flew over the island, according to officials in Taipei. Japan said five missiles fell in its economic exclusion zone, near an island south of Okinawa.
This time, the united states government has made no announcements about warships moving through the Taiwan Strait. “Biden could try to do that, but China could put them at the bottom of the strait. That’s something they couldn’t do in 1995,” Kroenig said.
The White House said Thursday that the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan will remain in the region while China conducts its exercises in Taiwan to “monitor the situation.” But National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said a previously scheduled ICBM test had been postponed to avoid misunderstandings.
Despite harsh rhetoric between the two powers and rising tensions, China is not seeking to start a war over Pelosi’s visit and is seeking to stage a show of force, not an invasion of Taiwan, former US officials and experts have said.
For now, Chinese President Xi is focused on propping up his country’s sluggish economy and securing an unprecedented third term at the next Communist Party congress later this year. But China’s new military could cause overconfidence in Beijing’s decision-making or lead to a cycle of escalation in which each side feels compelled to respond to show resolve, former officials said.
There is a risk that Xi could underestimate US resolve, and he believes there is a window of opportunity to seize or blockade Taiwan for years to come before US investments in new weapons upset the military balance, Flournoy said, now president of the Center. for a group of experts from New American Security.
“I am concerned that China will miscalculate because the narrative in Beijing continues to be that of the decline of the US, that the US is turning inward,” Flournoy said. “That is very dangerous, if you underestimate your potential adversary.”
To avoid such an outcome, Flournoy argues that both Taiwan and the US must bolster their military forces to deter Beijing and increase the potential cost of any possible invasion or intervention against Taiwan.
Finkelstein said he is concerned about an “action-reaction” chain of events that could lead to a conflict that nobody wants, and that the risk of a miscalculation in Beijing, Taipei and Washington “is through the roof.”
To control tensions, the US and China must engage in intense dialogue to lower the temperature, he said. “We need to be talking to each other constantly.”