Following the pre-G20 meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as well as Xi’s apparent diplomatic outreach at the G20, China’s defense ministry is open to meeting with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at a gathering of ASEAN defense ministers in Cambodia set for Tuesday or Wednesday. An actual meeting between Austin and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe has not been officially scheduled, but it does seem likely the two defense chiefs will meet while in Cambodia. Austin and Wei have not met or communicated since China suspended dialogue with the US in August after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. On the surface this appears to be the latest indication that relations between the US and China are moving in a more positive direction now.
Whether this holds true remains to be seen, but it’s evident that Beijing wants to at least be viewed as seeking a more productive relationship with the US and nations in the Western Pacific. For the domestic audience it portrays an image of China being treated as an equal. This has the potential to provide much needed political dividends for Xi down the line as the future of COVID-19 restrictions remains fluid. On the international stage the image of a less assertive and belligerent China should give Xi a temporary buffer and allow him to either deal with the slew of domestic matters or set the stage for the next phase of maneuvers on the geopolitical chessboard. Or both, perhaps.
Over the last week, comments made by senior US government officials and general officers indicate the United States is taking seriously the prospect of China moving faster than earlier thought to take Taiwan. After Xi Jinping said at the Communist Party Congress that the PRC reserves the “option to take all necessary measures” to reunify with Taiwan the warning was sounded by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The secretary said Beijing has made the “fundamental decision that the status quo is no longer acceptable” and China is now pursuing “reunification on a much faster timeline.” On Friday, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday picked up where Blinken left off. He stated at the Atlantic Council that the US needs to be prepared for a possible Chinese military move to be made against Taiwan by 2024. Perhaps even by the end of this year.
Gilday’s warning flies in the face of estimates and forecasts that China will not be prepared to move against Taiwan until 2027. The 2027 window has become embedded into the thinking and planning of the US military and intelligence community. Since the Pelosi Trip to Taiwan back in August, circumstances have changed somewhat. Beijing wasted little time in flexing its military muscle in the air and sea space surrounding the island nation. It became clear the Chinese government was moving to permanently alter the status quo. With the Chinese Communist Party Congress coming to a close this weekend and Xi Jinping seeming to have been successful in consolidating his hold on power, the warnings by US officials might indicate growing concern about Xi and his intentions.
Or the warnings could be more self-serving, at least on the part of Gilday. An attempt to cover his own failings as CNO with the prospect of war growing larger amid global geopolitical uncertainty. The current condition of the US Navy is not good, to put it bluntly. Readiness issues, a shipbuilding program dominated by political considerations and lack of a coherent doctrine for taking on a near-peer opponent in the air and at sea plague the service. China, on the other hand, has been preparing the PLAN and PLAAF for an eventual confrontation with the US Navy in the Western Pacific. While Gilday promotes a woke culture and readiness plummets, China is pumping out warships and submarines from its shipyards like hotcakes and focusing on the US Navy as its main enemy.
Since late Friday rumors of a possible coup attempt in China stormed social media platforms across the world. Within 24 hours the rumors had become so prevalent that #ChinaCoup and related hashtags were trending on Twitter and news of the alleged coup went viral. The first reports spoke of long columns of People’s Liberation Army vehicles seen on the highways in and around Beijing. These were followed up by posts indicating airspace in and around Beijing and other areas of China had been shut down and all train and bus travel was cancelled. On Saturday, the real meat and potatoes of the coup rumors broke out stating ‘reliable sources’ had confirmed that Chinese President Xi Jinping was under house arrest and the military had taken over control of the city.
Naturally, credible news sources reported nothing of a coup or the arrest of Jinping. Mainly because there was no coup attempt and Jinping was not under house arrest. Social media took the unconfirmed news and ran with it, as social media has a tendency of doing. The topic grew in popularity throughout Saturday and only started to diminish once it became clear through credible sources that nothing of concern was going on in Beijing or elsewhere in China.
As for what started the rumors, this remains unknown for now. Events last week inside of China could’ve inspired the rather creative coup news. While Jinping was at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meeting in Uzbekistan, two former ministers were sentenced to death and four other former officials were sentenced to life in prison as part of Jinping’s heavy-handed crackdown on corruption in Chinese politics. This was followed by Jinping departing from public view upon his return from the SCO meeting.
The China coup rumors highlight an ever-present danger of social media. It does not take very much for erroneous news to trend and appear legitimate. In these times of uncertainty, widespread fake news and rumors on social media could result in violence, damage, and loss of life in the real world. Or worse. Unfortunately, social media is also quite vulnerable to being weaponized by a nation-state for its own needs and interests. As we move deeper into the 2020s, the probability of this happening at some point in the near future is increasing.
Although there is still a war raging in Ukraine, Taiwan is increasingly on the minds of US diplomats and military leaders. Following President Biden’s trip to Asia and his comments on the possibility of the US militarily supporting Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack there are many questions being raised about how the US might intervene to defend Taiwan if the PRC launches an attack. Policy debates on the shape and size of a potential US intervention are taking on a new importance in the aftermath of Biden’s ambiguous remarks in Tokyo. The president was less than clear, whether by design or circumstance, on the conditions needed to be met in order to trigger a US military response. For example, is Washington willing to intervene in the event of a Chinese military blockade of Taiwan, or will the red line only be crossed after the first Chinese troops land on Taiwanese soil?
Practically speaking, there are considerable obstacles US forces will need to overcome to successfully defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. Geography and force posture are two of the most crucial. Taiwan is situated in the PRC’s front yard. Just 110 miles of water separate the island-nation from the Mainland. This is an advantage that cannot be negated or minimized. Hundreds of tactical aircraft and ballistic missiles, dozens of warships and thousands of troops ready for embarkation are normally based in close proximity to the Taiwan Strait. During a buildup to hostilities, reinforcements will pour into the Eastern Theater Command area and greatly increase the combat power available for an operation against Taiwan. Considerably more combat power than the US and select allied nations in the region could bring to bare or use as a deterrent. Improvements in Chinese air and naval capabilities over the last twelve years also make the formula more than a numbers game. The US forces still maintain a qualitative edge, but that is diminishing somewhat. Expanding capabilities, coupled with China’s already immense advantage in quantity might be enough to keep the US military at bay and unable to effectively influence the battle.
Periodically in the coming weeks, Today’s DIRT will examine the options available for the US to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, as well as taking a detailed look at the forces available to both the US and China.
With Daniel Ortega firmly embedded as Nicaragua’s leader, it was only a matter of time before Nicaragua gravitated nearer to China’s orbit. That it finally happened comes as no surprise, but the manner in which Nicaragua acted has raised many eyebrows around Central America and the world. In short, Nicaragua ended its long-running diplomatic and business relationships with Taiwan. Managua wasted little time in formally established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China next. Shortly thereafter, the first batch of Chinese-donated COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Nicaragua. Over 1 million doses have been promised by Beijing, seemingly a handsome payment for Ortega having chosen China over Taiwan.
“The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing all of China and Taiwan is an undoubted part of the Chinese territory,” Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said in a televised announcement from capital city Managua last week. Nicaragua is not the first nation in Central America to sever ties with Taiwan in recent years. El Salvador and the Dominican Republic announced they would no longer recognize Taiwan. In the aftermath of Nicaragua’s decision, Honduras is now taking a hard look at the prospect of jumping ship as well.
Nicaragua’s decision is a double victory for Beijing. Taiwan’s diplomatic influence has been reduced and the Chinese beachhead in the Western Hemisphere expands. Outside of Cuba and Venezuela, which are both allies of Beijing, China is moving to gain favor and influence in other Central American countries. The Biden administration has been very slow in countering Chinese moves in America’s backyard. It should regard Nicaragua’s actions as a wake-up call at the very least. The fact that China is actively moving to minimize Taiwan’s circle of friendly nation-states takes the appearance of being a possible precursor to military action in the near future. In the bigger picture however, the Chinese inroads being made in Central America are the seeds of a challenge to US dominance in the Western Hemisphere at down the line.
Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t exactly see it this way. As a result, China’s inroads will expand unchallenged south of the border for some time.