China s  Joint Sword  Exercise: An Escalation or Not?
Photo: Reuters.

On April 8-10, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted the “Joint Sword” exercises - a three-day military drill around Taiwan. The exercise took place after the U.S. transit of Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen and her meeting with the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy on April 5. This visit happened at the same time as former Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou’s 12 day-visit to China, which started on March 27.

When comparing this exercise with the one after former U.S. House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, several differences stand out.

  • Firstly, unlike last August’s exercise, China did not clearly delineate the areas around Taiwan where drills would be conducted, as well as did not announce the restricted areas.
  • Secondly, even though this time China deployed dozens of aircraft and warships of the Eastern Theater Command to waters near Taiwan, they operated at a further distance, not in Taiwan’s “territorial sea”. For example, the aircraft carrier Shandong maintained a distance of more than 200 nautical miles from the coast of Taiwan. This practice seemingly kept the tension not to escalate.
  • Thirdly, this time, the media of both sides did not give the drill as heavy coverage as the one in 2022. In addition, Taiwan confirmed that it would not respond by any aggressive means. 

These moves suggest that the situation this time is not as tense as the last.

  • Is that because Tsai’s transit shows that Taiwan also want to prevent the conflict from escalating? By choosing to meet in California, President Tsai seemingly does not want to receive another controversial visit from a US leader nor upset about 40% of the Taiwanese public who do not want tensions with China.
  • However, Tsai also wants to prove that the communication channel between Taiwan and the United States cannot be “shut down” by China. Therefore, she has chosen the so-called “transit diplomacy.”

From mainland China’s perspective, by inviting Tsai’s predecessor Ma Ying-jeou to visit China in 12 days, it seems that China also did not want to complicate the situation. Ma’s mainland visit can convey China’s message that Beijing wants to soften its attitude towards Taiwan.” In addition, this message also aims to keep Taiwanese nationalism from rising in the upcoming 2024 presidential election.

As such, China’s three-day exercise may only be an “inevitable” action in Beijing’s viewpoint, not an escalation.

The commentary is originally published here