On Tuesday, the Ministry of National Defense published the 2021 People’s Liberation Army [PLA] Capability Report, its annual assessment of the Chinese military’s capabilities. This year’s report struck a notably more alarming tone than in previous years and included the stark warning that the PLA possesses the ability to paralyze Taiwan’s anti-air and anti-surface systems, as well as to neutralize its ability to launch countermeasures by means of “soft and hard electronic attacks.”
The report anticipates that the PLA would in 2025 receive delivery of its third aircraft carrier, the Type 003, which would further bolster its area-denial capabilities, hindering foreign intervention, and enhancing its ability to project naval and air power beyond the first and second island chains.
As in previous years, this year’s report said that the PLA lacks sufficient transport assets and the logistical capability to launch an amphibious assault against Taiwan, but added that China is making progress toward rectifying these deficiencies. Additionally, the report stated that the PLA is no longer focused primarily on beach landings and is developing the capability to air drop troops.
The report’s downbeat assessment has drawn criticism in some quarters. Former National Assembly member Huang Peng-hsiao (黃澎孝) criticized the outlook and wording of the report, labeling it “terrifying.”
Huang added that, at first glance, it reads like a propaganda piece by Hu Xijin (胡錫進), editor-in-chief of China’s state-run Global Times tabloid, who is known for his nationalistic rhetoric.
Huang’s criticisms are wide of the mark. The function of the annual report is not to paper over deficiencies in Taiwan’s defenses or to boost the morale of service personnel and the wider public, but to present an unvarnished analysis of the threat posed by China and honestly appraise the nation’s capabilities. A cursory look at recent operations by the PLA demonstrates the vital importance of transparent analysis given the constantly evolving threat from China.
Last week, the PLA conducted the first-ever incursion of Chinese military helicopters into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. It was the first recorded incident of intrusions by Chinese helicopters since the defense ministry began reporting Chinese aerial incursions in September last year. Taiwanese military analysts believe the PLA could be probing the capabilities of Taiwan’s defense system to study how it responds to different aircraft types.
Japanese media on Monday reported that a PLA warship has been stationed 24 hours a day in waters between northeast Taiwan and Yonaguni Island, the westernmost of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. The waterway is a strategic chokepoint, and China is attempting to limit the movements of Taiwanese and Japanese naval vessels in the area.
Russian state broadcaster RT published an opinion article on Wednesday claiming that Taiwan had cynically overstated the threat of “paralysis” posed by a Chinese cyberattack for the purposes of increasing support from foreign nations. While this possibility cannot be completely ruled out, Japan’s annual defense white paper, published in July, painted a similarly stark picture of the threat posed by China’s rapid military buildup.
Moreover, it is well documented that the PLA has already developed, or is in the process of developing, sophisticated electronic and cyberwarfare capabilities, including the ability to launch electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks. The PLA’s EMP capability was detailed by former CIA officer and US Task Force on National and Homeland Security Executive Director Peter Pry, in a report published in June last year.
In reality, nobody knows how a modern state-on-state war would play out in the digital age; how well military systems can hold up under the onslaught of an EMP attack.
We are in uncharted waters. The military is right to take the threat seriously.
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