Differences over Taiwan’s status have fuelled rising tensions between the island and the mainland. Taiwan has the potential to be a flash point in U.S.-China relations. Taiwan has been governed independently of China since 1949, but Beijing views the island as part of its territory. However, Taiwan is a deeply emotive issue for China’s ruling Communist Party and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The People’s Republic of China has claimed Taiwan as its territory since the defeated Republic of China government fled from the island in 1949 after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communist forces.
If China declares war on Taiwan – war across the Strait would not only be a human tragedy – it would destroy world trade worth $2.6 trillion, according to Nikkei Asia. Distance would offer no protection from this catastrophic blow to the global economy including China. US will try its best to ensure that China does not get a foothold in Taiwan as the stakes for US are very high.
Resultantly, Taiwan is set to receive four US-made MQ-9 Reaper drones, this time the A variant, apart from the four MQ-9B Sea Guardian versions they had ordered during former US President Donald Trump’s administration. This is ostensibly to strengthen maritime reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities against China. The MQ-9As are also used by India, two of which it leased from the US in November 2020. Reports, however, specify that the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) would be sent after being stripped of their essential components, raising questions about the reasons behind such an action.
One is that the US anticipates China to capture the aircraft and study them. Another reason, a Chinese defence and foreign affairs commentator concludes, could be preventing Taiwanese military officers from leaking their secrets to the mainland, as many of them had been caught in several incidents spying for Beijing. Third could be to prevent Taiwan to share tactical battle field data with Japanese.
Taipei Times reported the $345 million military aid package from Washington on July 28 for Taiwan. The package will be delivered under a Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA) approved last year by the US Congress and permits up to $1 billion of weapons aid to be sent to Taiwan in 2023 fiscal.
The PDA enables the US President to direct a drawdown to provide military assistance to US allies in crises. It allows for the speedy delivery of defence articles and services from the Pentagon’s existing stock to foreign countries and international organisations to respond to “unforeseen emergencies,” the US Department of State said.
The report quoted Lin Ying-Yu, an assistant professor at Tamkang University’s Institute of Strategic Studies, saying that the drones would significantly boost Taiwan’s overall intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, as they can swiftly pass and receive intelligence via a satellite link.
The drones render vital Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR) capability, especially at a time when the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) began and have normalised exercises even on Taiwan’s eastern seaboard. It adopted this paradigm shift and aggressive posture after former US Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August last year when Beijing’s retaliatory exercises saw several firsts.
While being the first live-fire drills around the island, Chinese fighters like the stealth J-20 were also pressed into service for the first time. China also fired missiles and rockets that flew over Taiwan and fell into its eastern seas, which had never happened before.
In April, the PLAN’s Shandong carrier was exercising 200 nautical miles east of Taiwan in a three-day mega drill that followed President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California. China has also sent drones like the TB-001 in routes that completely circled Taiwan. Before August 2022, PLA drills only faced Taiwan’s western coast, but now they can entirely encircle the island, launching attacks from multiple directions or enforcing a total blockade.
The Reapers, with their nearly 25-hour endurance, sophisticated multi-mode electro-optical sighting systems, and communications technology, can coordinate with naval and air assets, relaying information of enemy surface warships, provide targeting data for missile crews, and possibly even guidance and course correction when the missiles are in flight.
The Indian Navy was looking at these capabilities to watch PLAN movements in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) when it leased the Reapers from the US. It already operates US-made Boeing P-8I Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft (MRA) as a part of its fleet. The two Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones completed 10,000 flight hours with the Indian Navy on November 2022, covering 14 million square miles of operating area.
Chinese warships enter the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) from the Straits of Malacca and the southern end of the Bay of Bengal and the southern Indian Ocean, either heading to their base at Djibouti on the east African coast or their naval base at Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan.
However, India does not face the same security threat from China as Taiwan, and certainly not from the sea. As previous Eurasian Times analyses and even mainstream reports have concluded, such singular systems do little to tilt the military balance in the Taiwan Strait in Taipei’s favour. This is even more so if the US “is working on removing some of the more advanced and sensitive components” of the MQ-9A drones, as the Taipei Times reports note.
Effectively being downgraded, the types of components the drones would lose are unclear, but experts offer an informed guess about the American motivations. According to Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) Propaganda Bureau handle Zhao DuShuai, the US is apprehensive of the drones “falling into Chinese hands,” which would unlock US military technologies.
These are satellite communications, radio transmission, and optical devices. This assessment aligns with that of independent Chinese military analyst Ben Lewis. “The US is concerned that if China was to recover a drone, they might reverse engineer it or gain other intel about US operations.”
If the Chinese don’t capture it, Taiwanese military officers can expect to leak some secrets to the mainland, which the US has long viewed with “suspicion,” according to Zhao. This year alone, the Taiwanese authorities arrested five personnel, including an air force Colonel and an army Lieutenant Colonel for allegedly spying for Beijing. In March, it charged retired Rear Admiral Hsia Fu-Hsiang and former Member of Parliament (MP) Lo Chiming for arranging 13 free trips to mainland China for 48 former officers from 2013 to 2018.
The encounters allegedly allowed the Chinese to “contact and even recruit” ex-military officers. Zhao attributes their actions to the Taiwanese military’s traditional distrust of the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP), as the RoC top brass have historically harboured pro-unification sentiments rooted in the Chinese Civil War.
Conclusively, it is unlikely for China to attack Taiwan because of its poor economy and the US direct support to Taiwan resulting in deterrence.