An Overview of Chinese Military Activity Near Taiwan in Early August 2022, Part 2: Aviation Activity, and Naval and Ground Force Exercises

An Overview of Chinese Military Activity Near Taiwan in Early August 2022, Part 2: Aviation Activity, and Naval and Ground Force Exercises

An Overview of Chinese Military Activity Near Taiwan
An Overview of Chinese Military Activity Near Taiwan in Early August 2022, Part 2: Aviation Activity, and Naval and Ground Force Exercises

John Dotson is the deputy director of the Global Taiwan Institute and associate editor of the Global Taiwan Brief

In an approximately seven-day period straddling the first and second weeks of August, People’s Republic of China (PRC) military forces conducted a series of military exercises around Taiwan in the wake of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island. As discussed in the first article of this series, the PRC announced a ring of closure areas around Taiwan for military activities, and conducted a series of provocative ballistic missile launches on the afternoon of August 3—including at least four missiles that flew over the northern territory of Taiwan itself. This second article examines the publicly available information about the operations of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during this same period in other warfare domains: air, naval, and ground. 

Aviation Sorties across the Taiwan Strait Centerline

On August 3, large-scale flights by PRC military aircraft across the Taiwan Strait centerline (台灣海峽中線) began. Crossings of the Taiwan Strait centerline have historically been rare events, normally used by the PRC to signal its displeasure either with actions by officials of Taiwan’s government, or else visits by senior-level US political figures. The last such large-scale incursions had occurred on September 18-19, 2020, in reaction to a visit by US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach. Notably, this period also saw the commencement of regular PLA flights into the southwestern quadrant of Taiwan’s declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Per information from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND, 中華民國國防部), the surge of sorties across the centerline on August 3 was the largest observed up to that point, involving six J-11 fighters and sixteen J-30 fighter aircraft crossing the centerline in the northern strait, as well as an additional five J-16 fighters in the southern strait area. 

The surge of flights on August 5 was the largest of the week, involving a total of 47 fighter aircraft and two supporting reconnaissance/patrol aircraft. On both of these dates, the aircraft roughly bracketed the northern and southern channels into the strait. Taiwan’s MND issued a statement on Twitter that the PLA aircraft flying on August 5 had also conducted a “possible simulated attack against [high value assets]”—presumably meaning simulated attacks against ground targets with air-to-surface munitions, although no amplifying details were provided. 

Unlike previous such incidents, the sorties across the centerline did not stop after a brief duration. Instead, in the days following August 3, aircraft from the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) continued near-daily incursions across the centerline (see examples here, here, and here). These flights have not involved deep penetration into the airspace on Taiwan’s side of the line, but have instead turned back after short incursions of a few kilometers. (This, despite PLA propaganda material intended to convey the impression that PLA aircraft have been flying in close proximity to Taiwan and its outlying islands.) The fact that the flights have continued on a regular basis, however, is significant. This change to the cross-Strait status quo parallels the change in norms that occurred in autumn 2019, when PLA aircraft began entering Taiwan’s ADIZ on a near-daily basis.  

(For further analysis of PLA air activity during this period, to include a more detailed breakdown of aircraft types and sortie patterns, see “The PLA Air Force Erases the Taiwan Strait Centerline” by Thomas Shattuck, elsewhere in this issue.)

PLA Naval Exercises and “Joint Blockade” Operations

On August 4, PRC state media announced that PLA forces from all branches would conduct exercises in the “northern, southwestern and southeastern waters and airspace off the Taiwan Island,” and that the exercises would be “focused on key training sessions including joint blockade, sea target assault, strike on ground targets, and airspace control operation, [and testing] the joint combat capabilities of the troops […] in the military operations.” Beyond this general assertion, PLA media provided sparse details regarding the specific PLAN ships that participated in the “live-fire comprehensive exercises” (實戰化綜合演練), with accounts that were long on propaganda and short on substantive information. [1] On August 5, PRC state media indicated that “10 destroyers and frigates from the navy of the [relevant] theater command conducted joint blockade operations in waters off the Taiwan Island,” but did not identify the vessels by name.

Originally scheduled for August 4-7, the exercises were extended nominally for the purpose of additional anti-submarine exercises on August 8-9. In a rare example of specific detail, PRC state media described the Luyang II-class (Type 052C) guided missile destroyer Changchun (長春) (DDG-150) as engaging in such operations “in waters southwest of Taiwan,” conducting sonobuoy drops and mock attack/defense drills in conjunction with its embarked Ka-28 helicopter. Overall, however, PRC state sources were noteworthy for the dearth of specific information about either the PLAN vessels deployed, or their activities—a stance that contrasts with the more detailed information made public in relation to naval exercises in spring 2021, or the Liaoning (辽宁) carrier group deployment in May 2022. This more restrictive and secretive posture is likely a reflection of the increased sensitivities surrounding the August 2022 “blockade operations” and their intended psychological effects.

There are some indications that the PLA Navy may have originally intended for naval exercises that were larger in scale, possibly including the involvement of one or both of the PLAN’s operational aircraft carriers. The nationalist outlet Global Times (環球時報) reported on August 2 that the carrier Liaoning had departed its homeport of Qingdao on July 31, and that the Shandong (山東) had departed its homeport of Sanya on Hainan Island on August 1. This reporting explicitly linked the carrier sorties to Pelosi’s expected visit. However, the Liaoning reportedly returned to port by August 3, and the Shandong took no apparent role in the early August exercises around Taiwan. It is unclear whether the reports of intended PLAN carrier operations were bluster by nationalist press outlets, or whether their participation was cancelled due either to political concerns or maintenance issues.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the exercises was the fact that PRC state media described them as “Taiwan encirclement” exercises, and that the PLA described them as a demonstration of its “sea-air joint blockade and control capability” (海空聯合封控能力) regarding Taiwan. Alongside the missile launches, the publicized presence of PLAN ships in the waters east of Taiwan was clearly intended to present a narrative of the PLA’s ability to choke off maritime sea lines of communication (SLOC) into and out of Taiwan. 

PLA Ground Force Exercises—or the Lack Thereof

Alongside the provocative missile launches, aviation activity, and naval exercises conducted in early August, it might be reasonably expected to see parallel exercise activity among the PLA ground forces stationed in the Eastern and Southern Theater Districts. The PLA Army (PLAA) 71st, 72nd, 73rd and 74th Group Armies, stationed at various locations along China’s southeastern coast, maintain infantry and mechanized units oriented toward amphibious landing capabilities. Along with the smaller PLAN Marine Corps, these group armies would be expected to provide the primary ground combat power required for any island seizure or Taiwan invasion operation. 

However, in early August there appeared to be little significant PLA exercise activity related to amphibious operations. PLA publicity materials in early August described 72nd Group Army small unit training conducted in July; recent 74th Group Army infantry training with man-portable air defense missile systems (MANPADs); and ideological-political classes held by an unnamed PLAN Marine Corps unit. Such routine matters aside, there appeared to be no apparent larger-scale ground force activity to parallel the operations conducted by the air force, rocket force, and navy. This contrasts with PLA Army amphibious exercises in spring 2021, which were actively publicized in PRC press—and arguably, hyped beyond their actual significance—as part of a psychological pressure campaign against Taiwan. 

The reasons for the lack of concomitant amphibious exercise activity in August 2022 are unknown. One explanation could be the fact that elements of the 73rd Group Army had already conducted a “joint sea-crossing exercise” in May of this year, and that further training exercises were deemed unnecessary—or else that the required logistical preparations for further exercises might have required a longer timetable than was available in the relatively short-notice timeframe that accompanied the Pelosi visit. The most compelling explanation, however, may be political: that the CCP/PLA leadership did not want to carry out ground force activity that might have been misinterpreted by foreign observers as preparation for an actual invasion. In any event, publicly observable ground force activity did not match that of the other PLA branches in the air and sea domains.

The PRC military drills conducted around Taiwan in early August should be understood primarily in terms of their intended political and psychological effects. On the one hand, some of the PRC’s military actions were quite provocative, including the missiles fired around, and even over, Taiwan; the repetitive crossing of the Taiwan Strait centerline by aircraft, thereby casting aside a de facto demarcation line that had existed since the 1950s; and an active propaganda campaign touting the PLA’s capability to enforce a blockade on Taiwan. On the other hand, there were many indications of calculated restraint: contrary to hyperbolic threats in nationalist PRC outlets, there were no penetrations of Taiwan’s territorial air or sea space (12 nautical miles) by PLA ships or aircraft, and even the centerline crossings penetrated only a limited distance before turning back. Furthermore, although evidence is limited, the much-hyped naval “blockade” exercises appear to have consisted largely of basic warfare proficiency drills. 

Beijing’s claims that the military drills were conducted entirely as a response to Pelosi’s visit should also be treated with some skepticism. In fact, the rapid pace of their implementation suggests an effort planned well in advance, with intended domestic political effects connected to the 20th Party Congress in October. Overall, the PRC’s application of military pressure on Taiwan in August seems to embody a “Goldilocks” strategy: one in which the coercive porridge must be neither too cold or too hot, but instead calculated to be “just right.” 

Since the early August exercises, there has been widespread discussion as to whether or not a “new normal” now exists in terms of PRC military activity around Taiwan. While it appears likely that PLA presence and activity in the air and waters around Taiwan will remain at an elevated level relative to the norms of past years—with discarded observance of the de facto Taiwan Strait centerline a key change—PLA military activity is likely to recede to a more measured level in the next several weeks, as the CCP leadership focuses on the preparations for the party congress. However, the months and years ahead are likely to see continued and gradual escalation in the military pressure campaign directed against Taiwan.

The main point: In response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August, the PRC conducted a series of provocative naval and air exercises in the vicinity of the island. Aviation, missile, and naval activity were intended to send a political message regarding the PRC’s ability to mount a blockade of the island, but the lack of parallel ground force activity indicates that there were no plans for an actual invasion or island seizure operation.  

[1] For one limited example, see the official description of underway replenishment (UNREP) and air defense drills conducted by the Fuyu-class supply ship Chaganhu (查幹湖艦) (Hull 967) and the Jiangdao-class corvette Panzhihua (攀枝花艦) (Hull 621), both assigned to the PLA Southern Theater/South Sea Fleet. Even this account, of two relatively minor ships operating in an adjacent/supporting theater for Taiwan operations, places a primary focus on propaganda (the dedication of the crews, etc.) rather than detailing the nature of their operations.