As China ramps up military flights around Taiwan, another quieter mission continues at sea

China Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft
A Chinese military Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

  • Chinese military flights around Taiwan have increased in recent weeks.
  • Those flights are seen as Chinese efforts to test Taiwan and send a message to its partners, especially the US.
  • But the aircraft included in those operations hint at a larger Chinese effort to improve its military’s capabilities.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China’s military flights around Taiwan have intensified in recent weeks in what is seen as an effort to test Taiwan and to send a message to its partners, especially the US.

Amid those operations, China appears to be continuing an ongoing effort to improve its military’s ability to fight below the waters off its coast.

In 2020, Chinese aircraft made a record number of flights into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone. China has stepped up those flights this year, adding combat aircraft and setting new records: 20 aircraft in one incursion on March 26, followed by 25 warplanes on April 12.

According to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, many of those flights take place off of southwest Taiwan and include variants of the Shaanxi Y-8 aircraft equipped for reconnaissance or anti-submarine warfare.

The latter capability is particularly important in those waters, where the shallow Taiwan Strait meets the deeper South China Sea. To the east, the Bashi Channel connects them to the Pacific through the Philippine Sea.

Chinese China navy submarine
A Chinese submarine off the coast of Qingdao in Shandong province, April 23, 2009.

The South China Sea’s deep waters are “favorable” for Chinese submarine activity, and the proximity to Taiwan is the reason for “the frequent presence” of anti-submarine aircraft, said Su Tzu-yun, director of the defense strategy and resource division at the Institute for National Defence and Security Studies, a Taiwanese state-backed think-tank.

The Bashi Channel “can be considered as an underwater corridor from which Chinese submarines can enter the Philippine Sea and launch strikes against the US West Coast,” Su told Insider.

Operating and detecting submarines in that area depends on knowledge of water conditions there, which China is working to learn.

“If you want to fight a successful naval war, you had better get your hydrographic information right,” said Lyle Goldstein, a research professor and expert on Chinese undersea warfare at the US Naval War College.

That information affects algorithms used in undersea warfare, and China has been “pulling out all the stops” to understand the currents, temperature, and salinity of those waters, Goldstein told Insider.

“The performance of all those systems is affected by those algorithms, and the Chinese know that,” Goldstein said, “They are working absolutely overtime.”

Waiting game

Shiyu Kinmen County Taiwan China
Shiyu, or Lion Islet, one of Taiwan’s offshore islands, seen in front of the Chinese city of Xiamen, April 20, 2018.

The geography around the first island chain – the islands immediately off East Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines – creates challenges and opportunities for submarine warfare.

“China has this kind of perennial strategic problem of geography,” Goldstein said. “To egress their submarines is quite difficult because they have to maneuver through the island chains.”

“You can bet they’re working very hard on making it as hard as they can for the US to know when Chinese submarines are going out and how they do it,” Goldstein added.

The shallowness of the Taiwan Strait inhibits submarine operations, but the currents, temperatures, and salinity create “a really tough acoustic environment,” according to Bryan Clark, an expert on naval warfare at the Hudson Institute and a former submarine officer.

The latter conditions make it harder to detect submarines – an acute problem for US forces tasked with finding Chinese subs in a conflict. The Chinese, however, will likely “just wait for the US [submarines] to start doing something that they can detect,” such as firing torpedoes or missiles, Clark said.

China has rolled out an array of assets that improve its ability to do that, including anti-submarine-warfare ships, undersea monitoring sensors, and advanced helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

China navy Type 056 corvette
Huizhou, a Chinese Navy Type 056 corvette designed for coastal defense, near Hong Kong, July 7, 2017.

“China just in the last five years has started fielding units of serious anti-submarine aircraft,” Goldstein said, citing the Gaoxin-6, an improved anti-submarine variant of the Y-8/9 aircraft.

“They had helicopters that could do anti-submarine warfare, but this is quite new, to have these large fixed-wing planes that drop on sonobuoys and look for submarines,” Goldstein added.

China still has anti-submarine-warfare shortcomings. Its sonar and sonobuoys “aren’t very sophisticated,” Clark said. “They’re easily two generations behind where the US and NATO are and … at least one generation behind Japan.”

The combination of assets and capabilities likely means China will focus on thwarting offensive operations by US subs rather than proactively hunting them, Clark said. Despite US submarines’ familiarity with the area, the confined waters there would limit their ability to evade attacks, meaning they’d likely back off in the face of Chinese pressure.

“The idea would be if a potential submarine is detected, they would send these aircraft, like the Y-8, out there to drop weapons on them,” Clark said. “They’re going to make sure that their own submarines are not in the area and use that to suppress US submarine operations.”

“The fact that the Chinese are developing this, essentially, [anti-submarine warfare] response capability means that US submarines are going to have a more limited impact on any confrontation with the Chinese over something like Taiwan,” Clark added.

‘China is extremely worried’

Navy submarine
US Navy fast-attack submarine USS Asheville with US 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge in the Philippine Sea.

China’s efforts to improve its maritime awareness aren’t limited to waters around Taiwan.

Last year, Australian officials said a Chinese ship off that country’s western coast was likely mapping routes Australian subs use to access the South China Sea. In December, Indonesian fisherman found a suspected Chinese underwater drone, which was seen as a sign of China trying gather information needed for submarine operations near Australia.

China is not alone in these efforts.

India, which recently clashed with China on their disputed land border, has stepped up efforts to monitor the Indian Ocean, especially around the Malacca Strait, which connects that ocean to the Pacific.

Last year, the US reportedly asked Indonesia to allow P-8 maritime patrol planes land and refuel there, giving them another operating location around the South China Sea; Indonesia denied the request. The recovery of underwater drones near China’s coast also suggests the US is gathering data on the waters there.

While the number of submarines in the region is growing – Taiwan is building a new fleet with US help – US subs remain China’s chief concern.

“China is extremely worried about our submarine force … because they know that it would be hard for them to hunt our submarines, and our submarines have quite a devastating punch,” Goldstein said. “They’re really trying to do everything they can to understand where our submarines are and how could Beijing possibly counter them.”

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Warnings about an imminent Chinese invasion of Taiwan are overblown

Taiwan Kinmen China
A concrete bunker on a beach facing the Chinese city of Xamen on the Taiwanese island of Little Kinmen, which at points lies only a few miles from China, in Kinmen, Taiwan, April 20, 2018.

  • China’s posture toward Taiwan has grown markedly more belligerent in recent years.
  • Nonetheless, there are many good reasons to be skeptical about warnings of a near-term or even medium-term invasion of Taiwan by Beijing.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The top US military commander for the Asia-Pacific region, Adm. Philip Davidson, raised eyebrows at a recent Senate hearing when he suggested China could invade Taiwan within the next six years.

The nominee to replace Davidson at the head of US Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, then went a step further, telling the same committee last week that in his view, “This problem is much closer to us than most think and we have to take this on.”

At first glance, such concerns might seem justified. The Chinese Communist Party has always viewed the annexation of Taiwan as a key strategic goal, but its posture toward the democratic, self-ruling island has grown markedly more belligerent in recent years. Chinese leaders have publicly reiterated their willingness to use force to “unify” Taiwan with the mainland, while ramping up the pace of military activities in and around the Taiwan Strait.

Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has presided over the rapid growth and modernization of the People’s Liberation Army-particularly its navy, air force and missile arsenal. Where Taipei once enjoyed certain advantages in the event of a military conflict, including technological superiority and the benefits of island defense, many military analysts now conclude that China could take Taiwan by force, and that the United States would be hard-pressed to stop it.

China amphibious tanks invasion
Chinese People’s Liberation Army amphibious tanks land on a beach during a Sino-Russian military exercise near the Shandong Peninsula, China, August 24, 2005.

Nonetheless, there are many good reasons to cast a gimlet eye on Davidson and Aquilino’s warnings of a near-term or even medium-term Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

First, the US military brass has a long history of inflating threats in order to ensure continued support from elected officials, particularly the lawmakers who fund their operations. It should be no more surprising that the head of Indo-Pacific Command is hyping the prospect of Chinese military adventurism than it is to hear the head of Southern Command opining that fragile states in the Western Hemisphere pose an “existential” threat to the United States.

The Pentagon’s own annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities, released last year, makes clear that an amphibious invasion of Taiwan would be “a significant political and military risk” for China.

Large-scale amphibious invasions are hard to pull off under the best of circumstances, and this would likely be the largest mass military mobilization the world has seen since D-Day. It would require the PLA to transport its soldiers across a body of water nearly five times as wide as the English Channel, all while ensuring that it maintains unchallenged control of the seas and airspace around the island.

As Taiwan-based writer Brian Hioe recently pointed out in a piece for the online magazine New Bloom, it is doubtful that the PLA currently has adequate amphibious lift capability to sustain an invasion and occupation of Taiwan.

China could try to make up for this deficiency by utilizing coast guard ships, commercial vessels and even fishing boats – engineering what some analysts have called a “reverse Dunkirk” – but that would entail its own discrete risks.

Whatever the case, it seems clear that Chinese military planners would prefer to have more time to develop their amphibious capabilities before attempting to take Taiwan by force.

Taiwan China amphibious landing military exercise
Taiwan’s military holds a large-scale exercise in the southern part of the island simulating an attempted amphibious landing by Chinese forces, May 30, 2019.

Beijing must also factor in the likelihood of an intervention from the US and its allies, particularly Japan, which hosts the largest overseas contingent of American active-duty military personnel. Most of them are stationed in Okinawa, just 750 kilometers – roughly 466 miles – from Taiwan.

In recent years, the already robust bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill in favor of supporting Taiwan’s autonomy from Beijing has only strengthened, and US public opinion polls also indicate growing support for the defense of Taiwan.

Japan, too, maintains close unofficial ties with Taiwan, and would view any Chinese aggression toward the island as a threat to its own security. According to a recent report in the Nikkei, a leading Japanese newspaper, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Joe Biden are planning to underscore the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait in their joint statement when they meet in Washington later this month.

As the Nikkei notes, the last time Japanese and American leaders expressed such concern was in 1969. Should it wish to forcibly annex Taiwan, Beijing would have to accept the high likelihood of a war with its top two trading partners.

Even if China successfully pulls off a cross-strait invasion while keeping the US and its allies at bay, the human and economic toll would be nothing short of catastrophic. Taiwan’s technology and manufacturing sectors play crucial roles in global supply chains, and Beijing would likely come under tremendous international pressure, including economic sanctions, to reverse course.

Bonnie Glaser and Matthew Funaiole, two scholars at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have also argued that China would have to deal with the prospect of a prolonged resistance movement on the island.

“An all-out invasion of Taiwan might bog down the PLA in a counterinsurgency effort that lasts for years, which could compromise the military’s modernization efforts, drain precious resources from the Chinese economy, and lead to dissatisfaction at home as the body bags come home, many of them likely to be their parents’ only sons,” they wrote in Foreign Policy last year.

This would be exactly the type of aggressive military intervention and occupation that China has castigated the US for mounting in the past.

Chinese marines navy landing craft beach
Chinese troops board landing craft during an amphibious exercise on the coast of southeast China’s Fujian Province, November 27, 1995.

None of this means that China’s threatening behavior against Taiwan should not be taken seriously.

PLA warplanes have intruded into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone with such frequency in recent months that the Taiwanese military has decided to stop scrambling fighter jets upon each incursion, opting to track them with ground-based missiles in order to conserve resources.

Deputy Defense Minister Chang Che-ping told lawmakers in Taipei this week that he considered China’s provocations to be a kind of “war of attrition,” likely referring to the fact that Taiwan has incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in additional maintenance costs to facilitate the frequent scrambling of its jets, many of which are older models.

Chang’s comments speak to a core pillar of China’s strategy: Wearing Taiwan down psychologically in the hope that, eventually, its leaders will be forced to negotiate the terms of their surrender.

Of course, Beijing itself has undermined that strategy with its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong and on the city’s autonomy, making a mockery of the “One Country, Two Systems” approach that Chinese leaders once put forward as a template for unification with Taiwan.

Going forward, China is more likely to continue and perhaps build upon its multipronged pressure campaign against Taiwan. This could mean further efforts to isolate Taipei on the world stage by trying to poach its remaining diplomatic allies and continuing to block its access to international organizations.

It could even try to test Taiwan’s resolve – and the international community’s commitment to defending it – by taking over one of the smaller islands that Taiwan administers in the South China Sea. But at least in the immediate term, it is difficult to envision Chinese leaders justifying the political, economic and reputational costs of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.

Pentagon officials are fond of saying that the US military is a planning organization. Its job is to plan for contingencies, and a military conflict over Taiwan is certainly worth putting at or near the top of the list. There are a number of scenarios that, while improbable, could spark an escalatory cycle and change China’s cost-to-benefit calculus with regard to Taiwan.

But no one is served by publicly exaggerating the likelihood of conflict in the Taiwan Strait – not the United States and certainly not the people of Taiwan, who ultimately have the most at stake.

Elliot Waldman is the senior editor of World Politics Review.

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