War Clouds Gathering Over Taiwan?

Over the weekend, relations between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan appear to have entered an impermanent and rather agitated new phase. With a week or so of escalatory air operations in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone serving as the leadup, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that a peaceful reunification with Taiwan will be achieved. Taiwan’s leadership viewed Xi’s words as him throwing down the gauntlet. On Sunday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said her nation will not submit to pressure from China for reunification. Tsai went on to say that Taiwan will continue increasing its military capabilities “ to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us.”

Xi supports Taiwanese reunification under a ‘one country, two systems’ model along the lines the Hong Kong System, which went into place after British rule ended there in 1997. That system, however, has all but collapsed in the last two years. Beijing has successfully moved to take direct control over Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and roll back the territory’s autonomy since the summer of 2019. Holding up the prospect of this for Taiwan’s future was not going to garner support for a peaceful transition leading to eventual reunification. Xi was aware of this long before his address on Saturday. The Chinese leader can use Taiwan’s defiant response as justification to turn up the heat militarily on the island nation in the coming weeks and months.

The United States has inadvertently helped Xi’s efforts with the discovery that a small cadre of US troops has been present in Taiwan for over a year working to assist the ROC armed forces in strengthening their defenses against an increasingly aggressive China. Beijing can point to this as proof of Taipei and Washington working against Chinese desires to reunify Taiwan with the mainland peacefully.

Now, as a new week dawns in the Western Pacific, regional powers are uneasy about what China has planned for the short-term. Most self-described defense and geo-political analysts and experts spouting their views on Western news channels and social media continue to insist there’s no threat of Chinese military action against Taiwan on the horizon. What they are forgetting to mention, or factor into their conclusions, is that the record number of Chinese air sorties around Taiwan and Xi’s promise of reunification, albeit under ‘peaceful conditions,’ could serve to signal the start of a transition-to-hostilities phase for the People’s Republic of China.

Taiwan Tension Is Putting Pressure On US-China Relations

As Chinese violations of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone off the southeast coast of the island continuing in large numbers have caused tensions between the United States and China to simmer once again. Earlier on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said he has spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping about the growing animosity between Beijing and Taipei. During the conversation, according to Biden, both leaders agreed to continue abiding by the Taiwan Agreement. He appeared to be referring to the Taiwan Relations Act, as well as the One-China policy which has guided US relations with Taiwan and Beijing over the years.

The US denounced the Chinese military maneuvers on Sunday, calling them both provocative and destabilizing. On Wednesday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will meet with senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Switzerland. This is apparently part of the latest push by the White House to ‘manage the competition,’ so to speak and prevent the two nations from falling into a major conflict. Sullivan will have his work cut out for him. Thus far, the Biden Administration’s foreign policy team has been shown to be lacking. Especially when it comes to dealing with China. The summit meeting held between US and Chinese officials in Anchorage back in March, 2021 certainly revealed the deficiencies on the US team. State is weak, the Defense Department is fully preoccupied with instituting a new woke policy on the services and the National Security Council is practically a nonentity in foreign policy matters. Afghanistan proved all of these points beyond the shadow of a doubt. Now, even before the dust has settled in Kabul, the Chinese are making noise.

Sullivan will likely come back from Switzerland emptyhanded. Beijing appears to be feeling out Washington to determine just how far the US will go to support Taiwan in the event of a China-Taiwanese conflict. That’s certainly one goal of the ADIZ intrusions over the weekend. By the end of the week, do not be surprised if China moves to tie the loosening of US trade tariffs to the heightening tensions near Taiwan. If Xi becomes convinced that the Biden Administration will go to any lengths to prevent a war over Taiwan, the Chinese president is going to use this to his nation’s benefit and gain every concession possible.

Then, once he is prepared to move and not a second before, China will still invade Taiwan at some point down the line.

Brief China Update: National Day Brings Increased Chinese Air Activity Around Taiwan

On Friday, as the People’s Republic of China celebrated its National Day holiday, aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) were conducting a large-scale show of force in the skies southwest of Taiwan. Over a two-day period, China sent 77 combat aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). This was the largest number of aircraft China had sent into the ADIZ in over a year, with 39 sorties on Friday, and 38 Saturday. Taiwan scrambled fighters and activated air defense sites and issued verbal warnings to the Chinese aircraft. Taiwanese airspace was not violated at all, and the behavior of the intruding aircraft was not considered to be overly aggressive.

However, the near incursions of so many Chinese warplanes over a short period of time is being regarded domestically in Taiwan as a threat. This type of intimidation is nothing new in the region. China has running air and sea exercises near Taiwan and its ADIZ for months. Internationally, the acts are seen as Chinese intimidation tactics as well as a warning to Taiwan’s supporters about intervening in any future China-Taiwan conflict.

China Increasing Military Pressure On Taiwan

Taiwan President Tai has alarmed China with her actions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although she has publicly stated her policy has been to maintain the status-quo, her actions appear to indicate otherwise in Beijing’s eyes. The status quo in this particular case is Taiwan’s ambiguous status as a de facto state and its continuing relationships with a small cadre of crucial partners around the world. At the same time, though, Tsai has initiated efforts to make Taiwan less dependent on the Chinese economy and continues to cultivate closer ties with the United States. Mainland leadership views this contradiction as evidence of Taiwan taking steps towards independence. The Chinese response has been centered on increasing military pressure over the past twelve months or so.

Recently, that military pressure has been raised up a level. Chinese warplanes have been conducting sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in ever-increasing numbers lately. On Monday, 25 Chinese warplanes entered the ADIZ as a response to the Biden administration’s amended U.S.-Taiwan communication guidelines that reportedly will allow officials from Taipei to visit federal buildings. The growing number of ADIZ violations is a signal from China that it disapproves of US-Taiwan relations becoming closer and will continue to react to these moves with military pressure. If the sharp rhetoric coming out of Beijing is any indication, the Chinese government is losing patience quickly.

“There is zero room for compromise and not an inch to give,” Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters Tuesday. “We urge the U.S. side to grasp the situation, earnestly abide by the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiqués, refrain from playing with fire, immediately stop official contact with Taiwan in any form.”

Taiwan is not the only potential flashpoint of the US and China in the region. The South China Sea is becoming crowded with US Navy and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships amid the situation in Taiwan and the growing standoff between Chinese maritime militia ships and the Philippine Navy at Whitsun Reef. As dangerous as the crisis in Ukraine appears to be at the moment, the prospects of a clash between the US and China in the Western Pacific is far more probable in the coming months.

South China Sea Update: 7 April, 2021

The South China Sea continues to approach a boil with two separate flashpoints within its geographical boundaries now providing fuel. With the Ukraine-Russia crisis grabbing attention, the South China Sea had once again become a chessboard for Beijing, with pieces being placed strategically, and in preparation for future coordinated actions, perhaps in multiple directions.

The first flashpoint is Whitsun Reef. A fleet of roughly 220 Chinese maritime militia and fishing vessels remain anchored at the reef which is situated within the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and continental shelf of the Philippines. The ships have been there since 21 March, ostensibly taking shelter due to sea conditions. It has been two weeks now and with the Chinese ships showing no sign of moving anytime soon, Manila is growing impatient. The Philippine government has warned China it will lodge a diplomatic protest for every day the ships remain in the vicinity of Whitsun Reef. An aide to the current president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has warned that China’s ‘territorial incursions’ run the risk of bringing ‘unwanted hostilities’ between the two nations. Unfortunately, given the military balance between China and the Philippines, this threat holds little water. But the tense situation does highlight the fact that Duterte’s efforts to cultivate a pro-Beijing position since he assumed office, at the expense of US-Filipino relations to an extent, have failed. Duterte has warmed up to Beijing in the hopes it would make his nation’s holdings in the South China Sea invulnerable to future Chinese ambitions.

It would appear that Duterte has miscalculated.

Flashpoint #2 is situated nearer to Taiwan. The sea space around the island is becoming crowded now as multiple US and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) warships have arrived in recent days. The USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group arrived in the South China Sea on 4 April to conduct routine operations. This came 24 hours after the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its battlegroup began running combat drills in the waters near Taiwan. In between all of this, the destroyer USS John McCain conducted its second transit of Taiwan Strait in recent months, placing Beijing on notice that the United States supports freedom of navigation in the region. China has become aggressive lately, probing Taiwan’s air defenses with multiple aircraft sorties into the island-nation’s air defense identification zone. There is growing worry among some analysts and defense officials that China’s activity in the area could be a precursor to military action against Taiwan in the future.

Author’s Note: Back to the Ukraine-Russia crisis tomorrow.