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How China uses military drills to intimidate adversaries and prepare its forces

The exercises play a political and psychological role in China’s foreign policy

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A Chinese military plane flies during a training exercise of the air force corps of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

In this image made from video and released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a Chinese military plane flies during a training exercise of the air force corps of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Friday, Aug. 5, 2022. China conducted “precision missile strikes” Thursday in waters off Taiwan’s coasts as part of military exercises that have raised tensions in the region to their highest level in decades following a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Xinhua News Agency via Associated Press

It has been seven days since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and met with President Tsai Ing-wen, but China has not stopped the military drills it began in response. On the contrary, China has ramped up its exercises in the Taiwan Strait, leading to what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described as a “significant escalation” in hostilities. Reports indicate the drills are disrupting shipping and air traffic in the region.

It’s no secret Beijing considers the self-governed island part of its territory, and desires to bring it under its full control. How do these military drills help China accomplish this mission?

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In 1995-1996, China conducted similar military exercises around Taiwan, including firing missiles near the island and practicing amphibious operations that would be required to invade the island, according to NPR.

A lot has happened since. China has revamped its military capabilities, and this week has displayed a much more modern and robust suite of aircraft, ships and submarines. Some military experts say China’s air force still lags technologically behind America’s, but Beijing has made significant progress to close the gap.

When it comes to naval capabilities, China’s force isn’t designed to reach the U.S. mainland, but its naval capabilities — including a growing number of aircraft carriers — make it an imposing threat in the Pacific. Over the weekend, Taiwan’s defense ministry said it had detected 66 Chinese planes and 14 warships conducting military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, The Guardian reported.

Modern-day saber-rattling

China’s displays of military force are likely an effort to intimidate the Taiwanese — it’s hard to feel safe when ballistic missiles are flying near your home. Per data from The New York Times, the military exercise areas encircle the island on all sides, simulating a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. The displays don’t have the same intimidating effect on U.S. and allied forces, which are superior, but they raise concerns of a military conflict other countries would rather avoid.

The drills also seem intended to intimidate some of China’s other neighbors. Chinese military drones crossed into Japan’s exclusive economic zone to Taiwan’s east last week, and at least five ballistic missiles fired by the Chinese landed in Japanese waters.

At home, the drills boost the morale of the Chinese people. Chinese state media has closely covered the exercises, showing the Chinese the military might of their armed forces. They have been well received in China,  as many disapproved of Pelosi’s visit, according to the Times.

Practice makes perfect

China’s drills may come off as simply saber-rattling, but they could be preparing Chinese armed forces for an eventual invasion of Taiwan — assuming that’s the goal. The regular exercises will keep China’s forces sharp and familiar with the terrain surrounding Taiwan. It’s unlikely China would risk a war with the U.S., so the drills may be a strategic way to leave troops in the region for the long term and potentially carry out a “slow squeeze” of the island.

The U.S. has urged calm and portrayed confidence that the exercises will not lead to conflict. Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, called Beijing’s reaction to Pelosi’s trip a “manufactured crisis” and reiterated that U.S. policy toward Taiwan has not changed, according to The Associated Press.

President Joe Biden has also attempted to tamp down fears. “I’m not worried, but I’m concerned that they’re moving as much as they are. But I don’t think they’re going to do anything more,” Biden said Monday.

Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, is not so sure. “China has used the drills in its military play-book to prepare for the invasion of Taiwan,” Wu said.