Maritime aspects of China’s response to Pelosi Taiwan visit

The People's Liberation Army Navy aircraft carrier Liaoning underway some 160 kilometres off Miyakojima in Okinawa prefecture on April 26, 2021 (Photo: Japanese Ministry of Defence)

China’s air and maritime response to the recent visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan has received massive media coverage. Much of it has been vague and confusing, and it seems likely that some agencies in both Beijing and Taiwan have been exaggerating aspects of the situation. Defence analysts have dismissed a number of images that have appeared in the media as being faked or irrelevant. The following analysis, which draws on a wide range of US and regional sources, is a summary of the maritime situation.

A few days before China commenced its military operation in response to the Pelosi visit, Beijing’s official media mouthpieces gave prominent coverage to the departure from their bases of the aircraft carriers Shandong and Liaoning, but there is no evidence that these warships took any part in operations around Taiwan.

Beijing originally stated that the exercises would take place between August 4 and 7, but lower-key operations now seem set to continue for some time yet. Reports on types and numbers of ships involved in these operations have fluctuated wildly as operations proceed. Analysis of plausible reporting indicates that PLA Navy deployments to waters around Taiwan have likely so far included a Type 054A frigate, single Type 052C, Type 052D and Type 055 destroyers, and a Fuqing-class replenishment tanker, as well as a number of as-yet unidentifie4d intelligence gathering vessels. Official Chinese media reports have implied that a nuclear-powered submarine has also been deployed.

In response, Taiwan has deployed a number of warships, including one Cheung Kong-class frigate to the northeast of Taiwan, and another similar vessel to the southeast of the island.

The Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Antietam and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan conduct underway replenishment in the Philippine Sea on June 21, 2018. (Photo: US Navy/William McCann)

American assets currently present in theatre are a carrier strike Group (CSG), made up of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, escorted by the cruiser Antietam and the destroyer Higgins, and the Landing Helicopter Assault ship (LHA) Tripoli. Also nearby are the Landing Helicopter Dock Essex, and the LHA America. The CSG has been operating East of Luzon, Tripoli off East Taiwan, and Essex well to the East of Taiwan. America has been positioned at Sasebo harbour in Japan.

Ronald Reagan is carrying F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter bombers, America F-35B stealth strike planes. It is very likely that the CSG also includes at least one nuclear-powered attack submarine.

China’s response to the Pelosi visit provides both the US and China with prime intelligence collection opportunities. All the US Navy platforms known to be operating around Taiwan have strong electronic intelligence gathering capabilities. Also, four Military Sealift Command ships, namely the sub-surface surveillance vessels Bowditch, Loyal and Effective, and the ballistic missile monitoring ship Howard O. Lorenzen, have been operating in international waters off China.

An important electronic intercept target for the US is likely to be PLA Navy command and control capabilities, with a focus on acquiring evidence to confirm the widely held view that the double-headed command system – which ensures that political officers with equivalent rank to the Commanding Officer serve on Chinese warship – has a detrimental and exploitable effect upon PLA Navy combat efficiency.

The Chinese for their part, are probably concentrating on the air operations of the CSG.

Washington has no doubt noted that China did not move any amphibious warfare assets near to Taiwan. Rather, the surrounding of Taiwan with six firing areas could be interpreted as sending a message that Taiwan could readily be blockaded, and the missile firings as demonstrating that China could bombard Taiwan at will. These observations would probably tend to confirm Washington’s current strategic assessments.

Probably also significant was the fact that a number of Chinese warships and warplanes unusually crossed the median line, the de facto sea boundary between PRC and Taiwanese waters, which could indicate a unilateral shift in the status quo.

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Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.