China’s People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Eastern Theatre Command recently dispatched warplanes for drills over rugged terrain in China’s far west to simulate conditions for conflict over Taiwan’s mountainous landscape. These drills sent a strong signal to Taipei amid threats that the United States may deploy its forces to Taiwan and strengthen military cooperation - which would be aimed directly at Beijing. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing Wen’s refusal to affirm the 1992 Taiwan Consensus, under which both Taipei and Beijing acknowledge the principle of One China, has also indicated that Taiwan may well seek a formal declaration of independence in future. China for its part would not tolerate the formation of a separatist Western aligned state just 130km from its coast, and the potential for such action could well lead to open conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
PLA Air Force drills came amid a report from China’s state run Global Times that it was ever “more probable” that conflict may erupt over the Taiwan Strait and Chinese fighters would be required to do actual battle with Taiwan’s own forces. The PLA has been at war with the forces of the Taipei based and Republic of China (ROC) for almost a century, and only the intervention of the United States Navy in 1950 prevented Beijing from conquering Taiwan and bringing an end to the country’s longstanding civil war. With Taiwan today indicating that it is willing to support the Western bloc’s efforts against China more directly, the potential for a resumption of open conflict in the Taiwan Strait remains. The Global Times states regarding the potential for armed clashes between the PLA and Taiwan’s own armed forces: "The mainland (Beijing government) needs to continue to prepare for a possible military clash across the strait. A military showdown with Taiwan is becoming more probable and may take place sooner rather than later”¦ the cost of dealing with Taiwan is rising immensely, a quick solution to the question may be essential. Despite a number of people being against reunification by force, the number that is pro-force and anticipating a cross-Strait war is growing unprecedentedly.”
PLA pilots have recently practiced firing at ground targets and dogfighting over the Qinghair Tibet plateau, the mountainous terrain and narrow valleys of which closely simulate a potential combat situation over Taiwan. Ultimately Taiwan’s small and antiquated Air Force and air defence forces would be little match for a Chinese air attack, which is vastly superior both technologically and numerically. Taiwan’s fighter aircraft, missiles and air defences all rely on Cold War era technology, much of it dating back to the Vietnam War era or ever earlier, while China fields some of the world’s most capable modern combat aircraft. These including the world’s only fifth generation air superiority fighters in service outside the United States, the Chengdu J-20, the world's most capable single engine light fighter, the J-10, and recently delivered advanced Russian Su-35 fighters which have been seen conducting exercises over the South China Sea. As Taiwanese Navy Captain Lu Lishi, a renowned expert on the country's armed forces, stated in his report fittingly titled 'Taiwan's Imminent Air Defence Crisis,' "not even the Gods or Buddha" would be able to avert a swift Taiwanese defeat should the PLA Air Force attack. While both parties have much to lose from armed conflict, the threat of a hot war could well be key to deterring President Tsai and her government from taking any extreme separatist action for fear of provoking Chinese military action. Threats by Beijing could thus be key to retaining the status quo and maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait.