Taiwan has joined Hong Kong as a focal point in the escalating US-China standoff, with both sides ratcheting up their belligerent rhetoric and military activities.
Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, was elected in January, becoming the first woman to win the office. Voters gave her Democratic Progressive Party control of Taiwan’s legislature for the first time, giving her broad authority to enact her policies in office.
Ms. Tsai obtained 56 percent of the vote while her main opponent, Eric Chu of the party that had been in power, Kuomintang, obtained 31 percent. Although her Democratic Progressive Party is reported as being more sceptical of closer ties with China, the new president adopted a cautious tone during the inauguration ceremony last week. It appears however that broader geopolitical events are pushing the Chinese neighbours to renewed military tensions.
On 20 May the US approved the potential sale of heavyweight torpedoes to Taiwan, the latest in a long series of weapons contracts which in recent times have included the sale of 250 portable surface to air Stinger missiles mid-March, for a total value of over $440 million, and a contract granted to Raytheon in April 2019 to upgrade for Taiwan’s Patriot missile batteries. Role of US weapons in Taiwan’s force modernization programs: LINK; Taiwan’s Overall Missile Capabilities: LINK
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs issued a press release on 21 May stating that the State Department has approved a foreign military sale of 18 MK-48 Mod6 Advanced Technology heavyweight torpedoes and related equipment at a cost of US$180 million, according to CNA.
In an article by the Taiwan News outlet, National Chung Cheng University’s Institute of Strategy and International Affairs assistant professor Lin Ying-yu pointed out that underwater military strength is the biggest threat to Chinese Navy ships, as it would restrict their movement — something the U.S. would like to see. He also noted that the torpedoes must be launched by submarines.
Therefore, although the sale of torpedoes benefits Taiwan’s defence, without effective coordination with the island nation’s existing submarines, these new weapons would be of little help, Lin concluded. He stated that the ulterior motive of this sale is to demonstrate that the U.S. can still help Taiwan through arms deals.
Su Tzu-yun, a scholar at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said the torpedo’s low propulsion noise, long-range attack capability, and other characteristics can contribute to Taiwan’s strategy of asymmetric warfare and maintain a balance of underwater combat power in the Taiwan Strait.
Su observed that the most important feature of the MK-48 is its large warhead charge, weighing about 1,000 kg, which can destroy large surface vessels such as aircraft carriers. According to Su, the range of an MK-48 torpedo is about 50 kilometres and the maximum speed is approximately 102 kilometres per hour, 2.5 times the speed of large surface ships.
At present, Taiwan’s Dutch-built Sea Dragon-class submarines have been in service for more than 30 years and with a life extension have about 15 years left, the scholar said.
In other developments, in response to Japanese media reports that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is planning on holding war games in August to prepare for a future assault on the Taiwan-controlled Dongsha Islands (Pratas Islands), on 13 May China threatened that it could turn the military exercises into an invasion of the island and even Taiwan proper itself.
On 12 May 12, Kyodo News reported that the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command is allegedly planning a simulated invasion of the Dongsha islands with Hainan island as its practice field. The mock invasion will reportedly take place in August and include a large number of marines, landing ships, hovercraft, and helicopters.
In response to the report, the Global Times cited experts as saying that the Dongsha Islands are in a ‘strategically important location’ and that the PLA has the capability of turning “any exercise into action if Taiwan secessionists insist on secession”.
In response to the news of the exercises, Taiwanese Ministry of Defense (MND) Chief of Joint Operations Major General Lin Wen-huang on May 12 tried to reassure the public that the military has contingency plans in place in the event of a Chinese attack and that it will strengthen combat readiness on its outer islands, including the Dongsha Islands.
The earlier reports have since been confirmed, and that one or even both of China’s aircraft carriers may take part in the military exercises. Earlier today Taiwan News stated that China is reportedly planning on deploying two aircraft carriers in waters near Taiwan as part of its war games in August to rehearse for a future assault on the Taiwan-controlled Dongsha Islands.
On Monday of this week News.com.au reported that for the first time, both of Chinas aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong, are being deployed together in Bohai Bay in the Yellow Sea to conduct combat readiness drills. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) carriers are engaged in the second week of an 11-week simulated military confrontation that will later extend into the South China Sea.
The South China Morning Post subsequently cited a military source as saying that “An aircraft carrier strike group will pass through the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands) on its way to the exercise site to the southeast of Taiwan in the Philippine Sea.”
Since the PLA announced it would hold the military exercise, the American military has stepped up warship and fighter patrols in the South China Sea. On Tuesday (26 May) the U.S. Airforce dispatched two B-1B bombers and a refueling aircraft to fly toward the South China Sea after passing over the Bashi Channel to the south of Taiwan and near Hong Kong. The two bombers and the KC-135R tanker aircraft left Andersen Air Force Base in Guam on their way to the South China Sea, according to Aircraft Spots.
There is speculation in the region that the aircraft having flown near Hong Kong might also be a signal to China over the proposed national security law which sparked a resumption of protests within Hong Kong itself.
Developments in Hong Kong are probably not a major factor of themselves however, as the US regularly conducts naval and maritime drills and manoeuvres throughout the region. On 14 May the U.S. Navy posted pictures of one of its warships sailing through the sensitive Taiwan Strait for the sixth time this year. The passage had taken place the previous day, when the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85) steamed through the 180-kilometre-wide strait separating Taiwan and China as “part of ongoing operations in the Indo-Pacific,” according to the post on the U.S Pacific Fleet Facebook page.
The vessel was sailing southward off Taiwan’s west coast but did not make known its destination. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence later issued a statement, noting that it was fully aware of the transit, which it characterized as routine.
It was the sixth such transit of the strait by an American warship so far this year. U.S. naval vessels passed through the area a total of nine times last year, according to CNA.
While the announcement of the operation followed reports on 12 May of a Chinese military exercise scheduled for August in the South China Sea to simulate an invasion of the Taiwan-controlled Dongsha Islands (Pratas Islands), it must have been planned and put into effect much earlier. Also, on 13 May a US littoral combat ship was operating in the southern reaches of the South China Sea. The Pacific Fleet said it was the second time in a week this type of vessel had patrolled those waters in support of “freedom of navigation and overflight.”