Taiwan is kicking off a week of intense military exercises this Monday, the largest of the year, that will simulate defending against a mock attack by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s armed forces. Although the buzz around the island, the center of the superpower clash, has eased in recent weeks thanks to a timid diplomatic rapprochement between Beijing and Washington, testing is key for Taipei: The People’s Republic of China has twice deployed its military might over the past year, conducting military tests around an enclave of unknown size.
During the five days that these maneuvers, known as Hanh Quang, will last, all kinds of tests will be carried out in different areas and at different points on the island. Taiwanese soldiers will pretend to protect the area from amphibious landings and protect critical infrastructure such as airports and internet connections. You will see tanks breaking through the beaches, soldiers firing from trenches, fighter jets monitoring the airspace.
In rehearsals that run in parallel, civilians will also practice how to act in case of aggression. An anti-aircraft alarm will sound, and they will have to run to the included shelters. “Last year I was in the office during an exercise,” recalls Kelly Huang, a 25-year-old from Taiwan. “All the staff at the place where I work went to the basement. We stayed there for half an hour. And then everything went back to normal.”
According to Huang, these exercises are “teachings” whose purpose is “to prevent what may happen in the future; You never know.” And he explains it like this: “They are very much needed. The difficult situation Taiwan finds itself in with China is no secret. War, he says, is a possibility that cannot be ruled out. “As citizens, all Taiwanese, if this time comes in the future, should know what they should do and what role they should play.”
Last summer, a week of military exercises came under scrutiny as just a few days later, the upcoming visit of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Taiwan. The trip of the American immediately aroused the ire of Beijing, which considered it an insult and a break with the fragile status quo which regulates the balance around this democratic and self-governing island, which China considers an integral part of its territory and to which the United States provides military assistance.
In response, the Chinese government launched the largest military maneuvers in its history, with a theater of operations that simulated a blockade of the island. Their ships and fighters crossed the Taiwan Strait, and high-yield rockets littered the island. Beijing also decided to cut ties with Washington in key areas such as the military and the fight against climate change, and the situation has entered a dangerous downward spiral, the effects of which are still being felt.
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In February, the shooting down by the United States of an alleged Chinese spy balloon sent relations to an all-time low. In April, in response to a brief visit to the United States by Taiwanese President Tsai-ying Wen, China once again demonstrated its military might by simulating an infrastructure bombing and landing on the island, whose reunification it has always advocated peacefully, though not excluding the use of force if necessary.
Since then, relations between the two geopolitical giants have stabilized thanks to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to Beijing last month. Taiwan was an important part of the interview for the first senior official of his rank to visit China in five years. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang reminded him that Taiwan is an existential issue, “the core of China’s core interests” as well as “the main risk” facing both powers.
Blinken assured in his subsequent face-to-face meeting with Xi that Washington “does not support Taiwan independence or seek conflict with China,” according to the official version of the meeting released by Beijing. Blinken’s consent was followed by a series of friendly landings in the Chinese capital: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen; climate special envoy John Kerry and century-old former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger are predicting a new course in the relationship.
This new edition of the Han Kuan exercise, which has been running non-stop since 1984, is “very important” because it is taking place after the Chinese army “twice” simulated military exercises around Taiwan, and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said Dr. Lin Ying-Yu, an assistant professor at Tamkang University (Taiwan), who specializes in the capabilities of the Chinese army. One of the innovations, he adds, will be exercises around Taoyuan Airport, the enclave’s international airfield near Taipei. “If the PLA tried to take it over, it would be very dangerous for the capital,” he says. And remember that Russia had a similar target in Kyiv in the early days of the invasion of Ukraine.
The airport, which is crowded with travelers in the summer and is the busiest in the territory, has not yet been put to the test. In this case, it will be closed for a few hours for exercises, and both the ability to repel an attack and the integration of various security forces to protect the airport will be practiced, Lin explains. The exercise will include members of the Air Command, Special Forces and Army Airborne Special Forces posing as an invasion force; Ground troops will be deployed to repel the airfield capture, Taiwan’s defense ministry said in early July.
Another key, the aforementioned expert says, will be to simulate “anti-landing” exercises, in which the island’s troops will seek to defend various areas that could be suitable for the arrival of Chinese military forces. These will not only be places located in the west of Taiwan, the flank facing mainland China, but also the Pacific coast, the area in which China has deployed its aircraft carrier. Shandong during the April exercise. “We have to prepare because the PLA could come from the Pacific,” Lin says, explaining that the resistance of undersea internet connections will also be tested to avoid isolation, and the focus will be on national security organization in general (not just the military) – another lesson learned from the war in Ukraine.
The Asia-Pacific region is currently experiencing intense war games. Australia’s largest bilateral exercise with the United States kicked off on Friday, with up to 13 nations taking part over two weeks in simulated warfare on land, at sea, in the air, in space and in cyberspace. This tenth edition is the largest to date. Meanwhile, a day earlier, China and Russia began joint combat exercises in the Sea of Japan aimed at guarding strategic sea lanes. According to military experts cited by the official Chinese press, the four-day exercise was supposed to work out the basic combat techniques against air, surface and underwater targets.
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