Beijing demonstrates strength: On Thursday, the People’s Liberation Army will start a large-scale military exercise in the area around Taiwan. For two days, the armed forces rehearsed sea-to-air exercises and mock attacks on “high-value military targets” in Taiwan. This is what the state media in the People’s Republic reported.

The maneuvers began on Thursday, shortly after William Lai Ching-te was sworn in as president of the self-governing democratic island on Monday. In his inaugural speech, Lai vowed to defend democracy in Taiwan. At the same time, he called on Beijing to end its military intimidation attempts.

The leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under President Xi Jinping considers self-governing Taiwan to be Chinese territory. From Beijing’s perspective, this needs to be “unified” with the mainland, if necessary by force.

The exercises are part of a long-standing pattern, says Su Tzu-yun, a research fellow at the Taiwanese Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), in an interview with DW. Military means would be used to send political signals.

On Thursday – three days after Lai was sworn in – Chinese Marine Colonel Li Xi told state media that the drills were “harsh punishment” for “separatist acts.”

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry condemned the drills as an “irrational provocation” and mobilized sea, air and ground troops. All Taiwanese officers and soldiers in the armed forces are ready for action, it said.

To increase its defense capabilities against the much larger Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Taiwan has increased its defense spending and expanded its asymmetric warfare capabilities in recent years.

The island relies heavily on the so-called “porcupine” strategy: smaller but highly effective weapons should make an invasion extremely costly for Beijing.

Washington is pushing for an asymmetrical defense approach, according to a recent U.S. Congressional report on Taiwanese defense. This relies on capabilities designed to undermine an amphibious invasion from the mainland through a combination of anti-ship missiles, sea mines and other similarly small, mobile and relatively inexpensive weapon systems.

This also includes the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the domestically developed “Albatross II” drone introduced last year. Additionally, low-cost munitions and mobile coastal defense cruise missiles would be capable of destroying expensive PLA naval vessels and naval equipment.

Fast attack boats with stealth capabilities and miniature missile attack boats are also part of this relatively inexpensive but highly effective equipment. Sea mines and fast mine-laying boats could also complicate an invading navy’s landing operations.

Another advantage to Taiwan’s defense capability lies in its geography.

A full-scale invasion of the island would require sending hundreds of thousands of troops across the Taiwan Strait – a lengthy and arduous operation involving thousands of vulnerable ships.

An invasion or successful blockade of Taiwan would be the “most complex military operation in modern history,” writes David Sachs of the US Council on Foreign Relations think tank. It requires tight coordination of air, sea and land forces as well as cyber warfare instruments.

In addition, the monsoon season only allows a landing operation for a few months a year. In addition, there are only a few deep-water harbors or sufficiently large landing areas on the beaches. But these would be essential for an invasion. The island’s east coast is also lined with cliffs, which provide a natural barrier to large-scale invasion. Due to the shallow water depth on the west coast, large ships would have to anchor far off the coast.

Sea mines combined with speedboats and missile-equipped boats could hit the PLA at its most vulnerable point. The Taiwanese naval units also have the ability to replenish their supplies from ammunition stored on the coast and nearby islands. Establishing a bridgehead would therefore be difficult for the PLA.

And even if an invading power were able to establish a bridgehead, Taiwan’s mountainous terrain would limit military operations, says Sachs. The capital Taipei, for example, lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, which, with its few access points, provides the best conditions for the construction of provides defensive positions.

In the event that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army succeeds in entering the island’s territory, Taiwan has also prepared its cities for guerrilla warfare. For example, portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and mobile anti-tank weapons such as highly mobile artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) can be used in urban house-to-house warfare. Many buildings can also be easily converted into barracks.

But Taiwan has also invested in larger weapons systems. The United States, the island’s closest military ally, sells military equipment to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act. However, the contract only provides for the supply of “defensive” weapons.

Taiwan is currently expecting a shipment of $19 billion worth of U.S. military equipment, including fighter jets, tanks, missiles and smaller weapons.

Under Lai’s predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s government increased defense spending by an average of almost five percent per year from 2019 to 2023. The share of this expenditure in gross domestic product rose from two to 2.5 percent. In 2024, defense spending is expected to increase again, albeit at a slower pace. They should then total 18.8 billion US dollars.

In order to potentially invade Taiwan, Beijing has expanded and modernized its military capabilities over the past few decades. On this basis, Beijing tries to send a signal of strength at critical moments – for example when Taiwanese politics deviate from Beijing’s interests or politicians from the island hold talks with US parliamentarians.

In August 2022, the PLA conducted its largest-ever military exercises around Taiwan. The exercises followed then-US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei.

However, this week’s maneuvers would be smaller in scope than those in 2022, says Chang Wu-ueh, a political scientist at Tamkang University in Taiwan. Unlike back then, Beijing did not declare any no-fly zones this time. In addition, the exercises would only last two days instead of five. Chang said this could be an indication that fewer large-scale missile tests and artillery exercises are to be expected.

Although the name of the exercises – “Joint Sword-2024A” – suggests further possible test maneuvers, says Chang, the risks are manageable despite increased pressure.

It is entirely conceivable that the PLA would enter Taiwan’s forbidden and closed waters to “formally break” the tacit border demarcation agreement between the two sides, says Chang. For the same purpose, Beijing has already gradually eroded the border in the Taiwan Strait.

“Beijing is taking a gradual and progressive approach, aiming to intensify its measures each time,” Chang said.

In general, Beijing wants to wear down Taiwanese society with its military exercises, says defense expert Su Tzu-yun. But this tactic is likely to lose its strength over time. Because the shock effect becomes less and less each time.

Adapted from English by Kersten Knipp.

Autor: Wesley Rahn

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The original for this article “Ready for self-defense against Beijing?” comes from Deutsche Welle.