China wants the world to know they’re still determined to annex Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army enacted a series of military drills circling the small island nation April 8-10. The exercises were in response to a California meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen and the United States Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy.
The operation, roughly known as “United Sword,” included a record number of military units—ships, planes, individual troops, and even an aircraft carrier—all acting out simulated strikes against key targets on and around the island. Taiwanese authorities reported that fourteen Chinese jets crossed the median dividing the island from the mainland, refusing to respect their borders. Even after Beijing announced that the drills had ceased on April 10, 26 jets and seven ships stayed behind, going around the island until April 13. Many saw it as a message from Beijing, reminding them that the conflict wasn’t over.
The people of Taiwan live under constant threat of invasion. China claims the island as its own, insisting that the conflict is a matter of sovereignty, not conquest. According to them, Taiwan is a province occupied by an illegitimate rebel state, and they are determined to defend that stance, calling it the “one-China Policy.”
The events surrounding the conflict are deeply rooted in the rise of communism on the mainland. During the Chinese Civil War, which resulted in Mao Zedong’s takeover of the mainland, the opposing Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan and built what is still known to this day as the Republic of China (ROC). Until 1971, the Americans saw the Taiwanese government as the true seat of power, not the Communist Party. Beijing views the ROC as a threat to its sovereign right to rule, so they fiercely oppose any country that recognizes Taiwan as an independent state.
Tensions escalated to historic levels when it was announced that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would visit Taipei in August of 2022. It was the first time a House Speaker had chosen to meet with a Taiwanese head of state since Newt Gingrich arranged talks in 1997.
Beijing responded with threats and angry rhetoric. In a conference call with Joe Biden on July 28, Chinese President Xi Jin Ping stated, “Those who play with fire will perish by it.” On the day before the meeting, Zhao Jian, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters, “We once again sternly warn the US side that China stands at the ready and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never sit idly by.”
China immediately announced that there would be a 4-day round of military drills outside Taiwan. They were initially supposed to last between August 4-7, but Beijing extended them until August 10. It was considered an unprecedented display featuring live-fire drills, naval deployments, and ballistic missile launches. They even deployed a submarine equipped with nuclear ballistics. The goal was to show domestic and international entities that the People’s Liberation Army was determined to act and that they were capable of taking the island.
The drills were conducted in the busiest portions of the Taiwanese Strait, one of the world’s most important channels for international trade. It forced Taiwan to deploy its missile defense system, and there were complaints that China’s missiles had even entered Japan’s economic zone, a historic first.
One of China’s goals for this most recent round of military drills was to prove that the United States would not come to Taiwan’s aid. But they’re partially reacting to American policy changes and comments from military officials, including Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, who said the American military must be prepared for the mainland to invade before 2024. President Biden stated twice in 2022 that the US would intervene if China chose to attack the island, breaking decades of precedent. In the past, the US preferred to keep its position vague, neither confirming nor denying that they would intervene.
It’s uncertain whether China can take Taiwan by force. The strait dividing the two countries is 160 kilometers, and it’s known for rough weather conditions, making an invasion impossible for all but a few months out of the year. The Chinese would also have to contend with the towering coastal cliffs surrounding much of the island.
China may not be willing to follow through on their threats.. Aside from their military drills, they have not taken action against Taiwan. They have not been shouting calls for an invasion or promoting the idea to the public. There were no missile launches and no nuclear submarines. President Xi Jin Ping spoke about the matter during a 2022 party meeting stating, “We insist on striving for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and best efforts, but we will never promise to give up the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures.”
Xi’s remarks represent a stark departure from his fire and brimstone threats aimed at Biden that same year. His government will often shift back and forth, sometimes threatening the use of force, sometimes claiming that they remain dedicated to peace. It’s hard to know when to believe them. Either way, Taiwan does seem to have allies, and if China chooses to invade, their victory will not be fully guaranteed.