Three French-made Mirage 2000 fighter jets taxi on a runway in front of a hangar at the Hsinchu Air Base on August 5, 2022. China conducted its largest-ever military exercises encircling Taiwan despite condemnation by the United States, Japan and the European Union.
Sam Yeh | AFP | Getty Images
The last time tensions soared between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, the U.S. Navy sent warships through the Taiwan Strait and there was nothing China could do about it.
Those days are gone.
China’s military has undergone a transformation since the mid-1990s when a crisis erupted over Taiwan’s president visiting the U.S., prompting an angry reaction from Beijing.
“It’s a very different situation now,” said Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. “It’s a much more contested and much more lethal environment for our forces.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, unlike his predecessors, now has serious military power at his disposal, including ship-killing missiles, a massive navy and an increasingly capable air force. That new military might is changing the strategic calculus for the U.S. and Taiwan, raising the potential risks of a conflict or miscalculation, former officials and experts say.
During the 1995-96 crisis, in an echo of current tensions, China staged live-fire military drills, issued stern warnings to Taipei and launched missiles into waters near Taiwan.
But the U.S. military responded with the largest show of force since the Vietnam War, sending an array of warships to the area, including two aircraft carrier groups. The carrier Nimitz and other battleships sailed through the narrow waterway that separates China and Taiwan, driving home the idea of America’s military dominance.
“Beijing should know the strongest military power in the western Pacific is the United States,” said the then-defense secretary, William Perry.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) back then was a low-tech, slow-moving force that…
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