China has established a permanent naval presence near southern Japan and eastern Taiwan, in a significant expansion of Beijing’s naval power, which focuses attention on the region as a potential future battlefield.
For at least six months, the People’s Liberation Army has been rotating destroyers and missile corvettes through waters east and south of the southernmost tip of the Ryukyu chain – which Tokyo calls the Nancy Islands – according to officials from Taiwan, Japan and the United States.
A U.S. defense official said the PLA navy had increased its presence in the western Pacific between the islands of Nancy and Taiwan in the past year. He said there is now a permanent presence of one warship in the area, which is often accompanied by a second warship.
The increased presence marks the first continuous deployment of the Chinese navy outside a series of islands from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south, which separates China from the Pacific.
Beijing sees the ability to work freely in the waters as the key to its naval power. Military analysts see the western Pacific as a major site for a potential clash between the United States and China if Beijing attacks Taiwan.
The new naval presence has accelerated efforts by the United States and Japan to develop plans for joint military operations for a potential crisis in Taiwan.
Taiwanese and Japanese defense experts have said the PLA Navy’s movements make it clear that China is training for situations that could be key in a potential future war for Taiwan. These include attacking sheltered air bases on Taiwan’s east coast and cutting off access to US forces approaching from Taiwan and Guam in support of Taiwan.
“In the past, a narrow interpretation of China’s naval movements in this area has been that they are a major concern for Senkaku,” said one man, briefed on US-Japan talks, citing the islands, which China also claims and calls Diaoyu. “But it is becoming much clearer that the risk is for the Nancy Islands and Taiwan.
The man said Washington and Tokyo have made it a priority to prepare for the emergency deployment of US Marines with advanced mobile missile systems on the Nancy Islands, Kyodo News recently reported.
A highly mobile artillery missile system would put Chinese ships operating near the Nancy Islands at risk. “This plan is one of several components of our discussions on joint operational planning for such contingencies,” said another informed person.
“Chinese forces would like a quick and decisive victory,” said a former high-ranking Taiwanese military official. “That’s why they have to destroy our fighters and warships in the east, which we will evacuate there.
Taiwan’s military plans call for its fleet to sail to the western Pacific after anticipating a Chinese attack traditionally thought to come from the west. These include sheltering fighter jets in tunnels in a mountain range at a base in Hualien on the remote east coast.
“We talk a lot about the PLA’s activities in the southwest and increasingly in the southeast of Taiwan. But what they are really doing is practicing battlefield management in our eastern waters, “said Hsu Yen-chi, a researcher at the Taipei Council for Strategic and Military Studies.
In November, as a Taiwanese minister attended a US-led summit on virtual democracy, Taiwan spotted two 071 amphibious transport docks between its east coast and Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island, just 150 kilometers away. Such warships can carry troops, helicopters and beach landing craft, a type of equipment likely to be used in an attack on Hualien Air Base.
Stressing growing tensions over Taiwan, the Taipei Defense Ministry said China on Sunday dropped 39 warplanes into its defense identification zone in the latest provocation against the country.
The big trip came when two strike groups of American aircraft carriers conducted joint exercises with Japan in the Philippine Sea.