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Tracking the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis
CSIS Newly Analyzes Chinese Activities in Taiwan Strait
Tracking the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis Photo Courtesy of CSIS

As U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan on August 2-3, China responded with forceful and coercive military, economic, and diplomatic measures. Developments are still unfolding, but the large-scale and unprecedented military exercises taken by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) far exceed the operations China engaged in during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis that took place in 1995-1996. Chinese escalation has precipitated the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, leading to international calls for China to immediately halt its military activities. This page will track and analyze key Chinese activities as they develop.

Unprecedented PLA Military Exercises around Taiwan

The most significant step to date is a series of large military exercises and live-fire drills. On August 2, Chinese state media announced that the PLA would conduct military exercises from August 4-7 in six zones throughout the Taiwan Strait and around the island of Taiwan. State media detailed that the exercises would include:
•A series of joint military operations around Taiwan;
•Joint air and sea exercises in the sea and airspace of the northern, southwestern, and southeastern Taiwan Islands;
•Long-range live ammunition firing in the Taiwan Strait; and
•Test firing of conventional missiles in the waters east of Taiwan.

As a whole, these PLA exercises are much closer to the main island of Taiwan than prior ones, showcasing the PLA’s increased confidence in its capabilities to operate near Taiwan. The six exercise zones are within Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and encircle Taiwan from multiple directions. Several exercise zones are far from the Chinese mainland and beyond the Taiwan Strait, venturing into Japan’s and the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Three of the exercise zones intrude into Taiwan’s territorial waters and lie dangerously close to Taiwan’s capital and key cities. It is also worth noting that these exercises were rolled out at once, while the exercises during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis took place in multiple stages from July 1995 to March 1996.

Mapping China’s Military Exercises

Statements by Chinese military analysts have made clear that the PLA chose the location of each exercise zone for specific purposes. Below are details on the importance of each zone to PLA operations and to Taiwan’s security.

Zone 1: This zone is positioned off the coast of mainland China’s Pingtan Island at the narrowest part of the Taiwan Strait. PLA analysts have noted that operations by this narrow neck could enable China to close off the northern entrance to the Taiwan Strait. This zone was also chosen to intentionally breach and undermine the legitimacy of the “median line” running through the Taiwan Strait, where PLA forces typically operate to the west of the line.

Zone 2: Located north of Taiwan, this zone intrudes into Taiwan’s territorial waters and is 22.5 kilometers (km) away from the tip of the island and approximately 50 km from Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. It is near both the Port of Taipei and Keelung Harbor, a key port for both military and commercial activity. Both ports are critical to Taiwan’s economy and together handle approximately 20 percent of total cargo to the island. Zone 2 is also located near Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport, the island’s busiest airport, as well as Taipei Songshan Airport, which serves as a military airbase and saw over six million passengers in 2019. This zone is located close to beaches and coastal areas to the northwest and west of Taipei that military planners believe to be suitable for a potential PLA amphibious landing on Taiwan.

Zone 3: Located 18.5 km northeast of Taiwan, this zone is near the only beaches on the east coast of Taiwan that may be suitable for a PLA amphibious invasion. The southeast corner of Zone 3 intrudes into Japan’s EEZ and is a short distance from the hotly contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are administered by Japan and claimed by China and Taiwan. Zone 3 thus further positions the PLA to conduct operations against both Taiwan and Japan. Similar to Zone 2, this zone is close to Taipei and Keelung Harbor. Control of both zones could make it difficult for the United States or Japan to flow forces into Taipei from the northeast side and could enable the PLA to blockade Keelung Harbor. Operating from Zones 1, 2, and 3 could allow the PLA to move quickly to seize Taipei from three different directions and may be particularly important if the PLA seeks to engage in a decapitation attack against Taiwan’s leadership.

Zone 4: This zone rests approximately 130 km from Taiwan’s eastern shores in the Pacific Ocean. Because of the distance to China and relatively mountainous terrain on Taiwan’s east coast, the PLA has historically engaged in fewer operations and exercises in this region than on the western side of Taiwan. This zone directly faces two air force bases at Hualien and Taitung, which are among Taiwan’s most important military bases. Placing forces there would enable the PLA to launch attacks on Taiwan’s eastern shores and bases and help deny the United States and other countries from flowing forces into Taiwan from the east. This zone also overlaps with Japan’s EEZ. Sandwiched between this zone and Zone 3 is Japan’s Yonaguni Island, which hosts a military base, radar, and other equipment and serves as a critical outpost near Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands.

Zone 5: This zone is positioned southeast of the southern tip of Taiwan. It sits between Taiwan’s Orchid Island and the islands comprising the Philippine Province of Batanes and intrudes into the Philippine EEZ. This stretch of seas, known as the Bashi Channel, is a critical choke point separating waters within the First Island Chain from the Philippines Sea and the broader Pacific Ocean. The Bashi Channel is also home to several undersea cables, which could be severed to severely disrupt internet access and communications in the region.

Zone 6: This zone is located at the southwest corner of Taiwan and is the largest of the six. It is close to a region that has been a stronghold of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP), the party that President Tsai Ing-wen leads and Beijing views as pushing for Taiwan independence. The southwest corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ is where the PLA has engaged in the most air intrusions, but typically at a distance much farther from the main island of Taiwan than the exercise zone. This zone reaches into Taiwan’s territorial waters, near the large cities of Kaohsiung and Zuoying, which are both home to key military bases. Kaohsiung also boasts Taiwan’s most important commercial port—which handled nearly 59 percent of Taiwan’s total shipping throughput in 2021—and Taiwan’s second-busiest airport. Similar to the zones in northern Taiwan, this zone is close to beaches and coastal areas suitable for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Military operations from Zone 6 could target DPP supporters, significantly undermine Taiwan’s economy (as part of a blockade), and support a potential invasion of the island.

The Significance of China’s Exercises

These unprecedented exercises serve at least four main objectives. First, they are intended to impose political costs on Taipei and undermine morale and support for Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen among Taiwan’s public. Part of this involves making clear that Taiwan will bear the brunt of Chinese punishment for closer relations with the United States. Beijing hopes that this will drive a wedge between Taipei and Washington.

Second, these exercises are part of larger Chinese deterrence and signaling efforts toward the United States, Taiwan, U.S. regional allies, and the broader international community to demonstrate how capable and determined China is to exert control over Taiwan and enforce its One China Principle. The exercises involve direct costs for Japan, and to some extent the Philippines, because of PLA operations (and firing of missiles) within both countries’ claimed waters. PLA activities are also meant to broadly deter countries from supporting Taiwan by showcasing how much China is willing to escalate.

Third, these exercises allow the PLA to rehearse how to conduct a variety of military operations that could form part of a PLA blockade or invasion of the island. This includes not only activities directed at Taiwan, but operations to prevent potential third country intervention in a China-Taiwan conflict.

Fourth, and longer term, Beijing aims to use the exercises to establish a new status quo in the Taiwan Strait. China is specifically seeking to erase the notion of the median line that divides the strait and aims to constrain PLA operations west of the line. China also seeks to establish a new normal in which the PLA no longer respects Taiwan’s claims to a separate airspace and territorial waters. These exercises are likely only the beginning of PLA operations close to and above Taiwan. ChinaPower

Bonny Lin, Brian Hart, Matthew P. Funaiole, Samantha Lu, Hannah Price, Nicholas Kaufman

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