On 8 April 2023, the Chinese military launched their latest exercises, “Joint Sword”, which were undertaken in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. The exercises started just a day after Taiwan’s President returned from a 10-day trip to Central America and the United States (US) and undertook a meeting with the Speaker of the House of Representatives during her short duration in the US. Taiwan’s military had been monitoring Chinese military activity since before the drills began, primarily the Shandong carrier strike group on 6 April, which was around 200 nautical miles from the island of Taiwan.
These drills, although smaller and slightly farther away than the ones conducted by China last year when the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan, are still some of the largest yet. The exercises last year had a level of escalation to previous ones, showing capabilities never used before. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed record numbers of aircraft which entered the Taiwan Strait, firing ballistic missiles over the island, the latter showing China’s capability to strike ships stationed on the east coast of Taiwan. This time, according to the PLA, they simulated precision strikes against specific targets in Taiwan and stated at the closure of the exercises that they had comprehensively tested the capabilities of the units under combat conditions.
According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Defence, 91 aircraft and 12 naval vessels were detected in the Taiwan Strait on 10 April. Of those 91 aircraft, 54 crossed the median line, with everything from Su-30 and J-16 fighters to J-16D electronic attack jets and H-6 nuclear-capable bombers taking part in the drills. And according to satellite imagery, Chinese and Taiwanese ships were at one point in close proximity to each other, undertaking a standoff. A notable inclusion in these exercises was that of an aircraft carrier, Shandong, and its aviation complement, including the carrier-borne J-15 fighters.
The drills show all the concerned parties that China has the capabilities to not only blockade but also overwhelmingly engage the island of Taiwan from different avenues of attack.
Japan’s Ministry of Defence, which closely monitored the Chinese carrier strike group as it came within 140 miles of the Japanese island of Miyako, states that the carrier’s aviation complement undertook around 120 sorties. The carrier group comprised the carrier Shandong, a Type 052D destroyer, two Type 054A frigates and a fast supply ship. It was also the first instance of the PLA Navy using the carrier-based J-15 aircraft to fly inside Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). The use of a carrier strike group shows how, in the event of a conflict, China could use its carriers to attack Taiwan from different directions, primarily from the east of the island. Planes based in mainland China cannot do this. With a single or even multiple Chinese carriers on the eastern shore of Taiwan, it will be difficult for the island’s allies to come to its aid, effectively surrounding and blockading it.
PLA stated that its rocket and missile forces simulated precision strikes on key targets on the island. Taiwan’s Ministry of Defence stated that they paid close attention to the actions of the PLA rocket and missile force and were fully aware of the movements of said forces.
The US responded to the drills by conducting freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, where a guided missile destroyer sailed through waters that China claims near the Spratly Islands. Japan had also scrambled fighters to keep an eye on fighters launched by the Shandong while it was off the coast of the island of Miyako. Taiwan undertook a measured response to the drills so as not to provoke the Chinese forces. They mobilised Hsiung Feng mobile anti-ship missile launchers. The Taiwanese navy readied its larger ships and sent missile boats into the Strait to practice movements and engagement procedures, while other ships and aircraft were used to monitor the Shandong carrier strike group. Taiwanese air defences were also on high alert throughout the Chinese drills.
PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command was responsible for the Joint Sword exercises, and it was periodically disseminating information regarding different aspects of the drills. These drills give the PLA the ability to practice large-scale deployment of ships, aircraft and other assets in a realistic setting. It also leads to the various operational commanders gaining much-needed interoperability and combined operations experience. Overall, this gives China new insights and experiences with respect to operations in and around the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan. At the same time, the drills show all the concerned parties that China has the capabilities to not only blockade but also overwhelmingly engage the island of Taiwan from different avenues of attack. The new capabilities shown by the PLA in the Joint Sword exercises, the record number of aircraft that flew into Taiwan’s ADIZ, and the never before undertaken simulated precision strikes are a cause of concern for Taiwan.