Sept 2022

Boastful China reveals its secrets

Spies, generals and diplomats have deepened their knowledge of China thanks to intense military activity around Taiwan. Duncan Bartlett believes the intelligence will be relished by the US and its allies

The United States Department of Defence operates more than 150 spy satellites, many of which are focused on China.

They are capable of collecting pin-sharp images of Chinese soldiers, hardware and weapons, which are beamed to the Pentagon for analysis by experts.

Knowing that its forces are being constantly watched, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army endeavours to keep the most formidable parts of its arsenal hidden from view, especially its 500 or so nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

However, the PLA deliberately chose to show off hundreds of boats, planes and conventional weapons systems when it conducted live fire exercises in the vicinity of Taiwan this August. In doing so, it offered remarkable insights into how the army operates in attack mode.

When Chinese television news bulletins showed the Eastern Theater Command of the PLA in action, their reports were enhanced with a soundtrack of patriotic music.

Nationalistic websites and similarly jingoistic newspapers such as the Global Times gloated over the fine details. One report said that ‘during the drills, Type 052C guided missile destroyer Changchun coordinated with several Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft and formed an anti-submarine combat formation with the Changchun’s Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopter’.

SHOW OF STRENGTH: China’s Aug. 9 live fire exercises around Taiwan

Chinese propaganda talked about ‘encircling’ Taiwan and a plan to ‘lock the island not only from inside out, but also from the outside in’. The drills were said to show the PRC’s ‘determination to push forward the reunification process after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s provocative visit to the island that seriously violated China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’.

Kurt Campbell, the US Security Advisor in Asia, claimed that since Ms Pelosi’s trip to Taipei, China has been ‘intimidating and coercing’ Taiwan and trying to undermine its resistance. ‘Our response to that behaviour was responsible, steady, and resolute,’ he said.

Mr Campbell explained that the US Navy moved three large warships into the region ‘to respond to any contingency’, including the amphibious assault ships USS Tripoli and USS America, as well as the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which can carry up to 60 fighter planes.

After China scaled down its exercises, the American battle group sailed back to dock at Yokosuka in Japan.

Responsibility for assessing the risk of war falls to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns. His team – based at the Pentagon in Washington – is now updating its China files, using data gathered by satellites and agents in Asia.

Chinese propaganda spoke of ‘encircling’ Taiwan

Before the Chinese military exercises, Mr Burns told the Aspen Security Forum that he would not underestimate Xi Jinping’s determination to assert Chinese control over Taiwan through military action in the next few years. However, he played down speculation that this was likely to happen after a key Communist party meeting later this year, the National Party Congress, at which Mr Xi’s term in office is likely to be extended.

Mr Burns claimed that China is studying the lessons of Russian military shortfalls in Ukraine before taking action. He said that China is believed to have observed from Ukraine that ‘you don’t achieve quick, decisive victories with underwhelming force’.

The events around Taiwan have revealed much about the current state of relations between China and its supporters, neighbours and rivals.

Shannon Tiezzi, Editor-in-Chief at The Diplomat, an online magazine which covers the Asia Pacific, notes that the countries most forward-leaning in their support of China are Myanmar, Russia and North Korea. All three explicitly blame the United States for provoking the current tensions.

The statement from Myanmar’s military government said that Pelosi’s visit ‘is causing escalation of tensions on the Taiwan Strait’. North Korea, meanwhile, railed against ‘the impudent interference of the US in internal affairs of other countries and its intentional political and military provocation’. Russia spoke of ‘problems and crises created by Washington’ and accused the United States of ‘violating’ the ‘fundamental principle of the sovereign equality of states’.

Soon after Ms Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un corresponded on the occasion of a North Korean national holiday on August 17.

In an exchange of friendly messages, Mr Putin said Russia aspires to create ‘even stronger ties in the future’ with North Korea, while Kim Jong-un said the nations are bound by a joint effort against the threats of ‘enemy military forces’.

The US Navy moved three large warships into the region ‘to respond to any contingency’

There was even a report on Russian state television that 100,000 North Korean soldiers are prepared to join the Russians in conquering Ukraine. This has not been verified by any other reliable source. The claims will be keenly studied by the CIA to see if they amount to anything more than propaganda.

Among those nations not backing China is Japan. During the Chinese military drills near Taiwan, five ballistic missiles hit waters in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi looked solemn when he stood before reporters in Tokyo, emphasising that the incident was ‘a serious problem that affects our national security and the safety of our citizens’.

Japan went on to sign a joint statement with the other G7 foreign ministers, denouncing ‘threatening actions by the People’s Republic of China’.

Nonetheless, Shannon Tiezzinotes that ‘a number of Asia-Pacific countries did not issue formal statements at all, with South Korea, a US ally, being the most notable omission’.

INTELLIGENCE GATHERING: CIA director William Burns and his team are updating the agency’s China files

Soon after her visit to Taipei, Nancy Pelosi flew to the South Korean capital, Seoul.President Yoon Suk-yeol did not meet her in person – saying he was on vacation – and instead opted for a phone call.

Yet Korean media reported that the president was holidaying quite nearby. He was staying in his Seoul condo, only about a 30-minute drive from the National Assembly where Pelosi was to be hosted by Kim Jin-pyo, speaker of the South Korean parliament.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Park Jin, travelled to Qingdao, in eastern China for a meeting with his Chinesecounterpart, State Councillor Wang Yi.The Chinese Foreign Ministry offered him a warm welcome and said China ‘is willing to promote the healthy and stable development of bilateral relations with the Republic of Korea’.

Tellingly, there was no mention of Taiwan.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs