China’s military drills around Taiwan are now expected to be the “new normal,” Chinese State Media announced. But, is there a silver lining the US intelligence could explore in these military exercises?

According to Singapore-based security analyst Collin Koh, yes, there is.

As China continues to parade its naval warships and missiles, Koh said this could be an opportunity to monitor “key Chinese elements – China’s reformed Eastern Theatre Command, its Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force – operating together in a fully coordinated and integrated way.”

“I fully expect the US to be collecting from a full spectrum – signals, communications and electronic intelligence – it is just a too good opportunity to miss.”

“When you collect this kind of data from the other side, it means you can figure out where the vulnerabilities are, and it helps you create your own counter and jamming systems,” Koh told Reuters.

The USS Ronald Reagan
The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), a Nimitz class Aircraft Carrier of the United States Navy (USN) as seen from the SM by the Bay Amusement Park. (Source: Rhk111/Wikimedia)

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan, the US Navy moved the USS Ronald Raegan into the Philippines Sea, east of Taiwan. So, ultimately, the US had the proximity to observe and spy on the latest Chinese naval advancements.

Two US military officials also shared they’re considering data gathering opportunities during the drills but also cautioned about the limitation of “in-depth intelligence” this could offer.

Of course, an anonymous military official said that China would also be careful in displaying its full force for the world to see. If they will show the world weaponry, it’s highly likely that they will only deploy the ones that are already publicly known.

Aside from four US warships, there are less visible surveillance submarines and aircraft around the region from Taiwan, Japan, and the US. The advantage of submarines in this potential intelligence mission is their ability to collect individual “acoustic signatures” for Chinese warships. These invaluable data could help the US Navy if a confrontation happens. US acoustic processing capabilities are advanced enough to identify individual ships and submarines by their sound alone.

Signals intelligence could also gathered by submarines and aircraft using electromagnetic spectrum using assets like the US RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft.

As for Taiwan, they launched their very own Albatross drones to get video footage of the Chinese drills.

China-Taiwan: Open-ended Situation

As we keep our eye on new events in this China-Taiwan tension, many experts believe there will be no active confrontation between the two. On Wednesday, Chinese State Media released a paper saying they’re looking for “reunification” and are open to having cordial conversations with Taiwan.

“We have now moved into a qualitatively new state of affairs and the resolution of the ‘Taiwan question’ is actively in motion,” Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the state-backed Center for China and Globalization, told Al Jazeera. “We don’t know what the length or magnitude of the drills will be … some say the blockade has already started.”

Additionally, since this region where the drills are happening affects global trade (including multi-billion dollar trade routes for Chinese export), many question if China’s ready to foot the bill they’d potentially have to pay if they continue provoking Taiwan.

“Exporters may seek a second-best option if free undisrupted trade in and out of Taiwan becomes difficult,” said Chief Analyst at Shipping Intelligence Platform Xeneta Peter Sand.

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“For carriers, they will rearrange their service offerings to customers, some will no longer call on Taiwan, some will do so at lower frequency.”

“If the Taiwan Strait becomes an area without free passage – all routes will become extended, transit times will go up and goods will take even longer to get to consumers,” Sand added. “Freight rates will be most affected in the short term, before a ‘new normal’ for trade lanes in the region is established.”

Taiwan Map
Map of Taiwan (Source: Larry Koester/Flickr)

On the other hand, the US is also looking for options on intervening around the blockade. Elbridge Colby, a former high-ranking US defense official, said the US could work with Asia to protect this trade route in Taiwan.

“This may necessitate challenging China’s blockade, but this would be necessary.”

Still, there’s no way of saying if China’s “posturing is just that” or if they would be overly adamant in pushing the “symbolic ideologies” of Taiwan being part of China.

“China will act with caution and I don’t expect the present situation to escalate out of control,” Sand said. “Having said that, tensions will remain elevated going forward.”

However, Mok said the Chinese government is very protective of their political objectives, especially ones that would strengthen their communist beliefs.

“The Chinese government under Xi Jinping has shown a willingness to forego short or even medium-term economic interests for the sake of securing its political objectives.”

“Reunification by force does not necessarily mean a full-scale amphibious invasion. What I likely think it will mean first is an aerial and naval blockade of Taiwan.”