Western Pacific Update 1 June, 2022: Chinese ‘Readiness Patrols’ and A US-Taiwan Trade Initiative

Earlier today, China’s military announced it had conducted a ‘readiness’ patrol in the waters and airspace around Taiwan, claiming the move is in response to “collusion” between Washington and Taipei. On Monday, thirty Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan’s air defense zone, prompting a coordinated response. Fighters were scrambled, and air defense, as well as radar sites were activated. 2022 has seen over 450 incursions of Taiwan’s ADIZ by Chinese warplanes. Since the start of Russia’s war with Ukraine the tempo of Chinese operations around Taiwan has decreased significantly. Following Monday’s ‘readiness’ patrol, there is growing suspicion that the lull is over.

President Biden’s comments on defending Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack was obviously not appreciated by Beijing. The PRC continues to regard Taiwan as its own territory. A primary purpose for the PLAAF and PLAN maneuvers in close proximity to the island nation is warning the United States to stop meddling in ‘Chinese affairs.’ Flexing its military might has not yielded the results Beijing has anticipated, however.

In the wake of Biden’s trip to Asia, the US is moving to establish stronger economic ties with Taipei. A US-Taiwan trade initiative was announced today and is expected to begin trade negotiations between the two nations before a formal free trade agreement can be signed. The initiative comes after Taiwan was excluded from the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.

Defending Taiwan: Introduction

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.

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.

Chinese Pressure On Taiwan Increases Amid US Troubles In Afghanistan

China is wasting no time in using the chaos of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to advance its agenda closer to home. State media has been having a field day this week trumpeting the United States as a declining global power and taunting Taiwan with threats of military action. “The fall of Kabul marks the collapse of the international image and credibility of the US,” an editorial from state news agency Xinhua said earlier in the week. “Following the blows of the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, the decay of the American hegemony has become an undisputed reality. Its failure in Afghanistan is another turning point in that spiral fall.” Beijing is hoping America’s allies in the Pacific region are listening. Especially, Taiwan.

The rhetoric has been followed by Chinese air and naval exercises in Taiwan Strait. The military pressure, combined with media propaganda has sparked discussions in Taiwan concerning how the government would react to a Chinese invasion. More concerning, perhaps, are the discussions that Taiwanese are now having about whether or not the United States will come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of war. If a feeling of hesitation develops publicly among Taiwan’s citizens and politicians, expect China to turn up the pressure. Right now, it’s difficult to imagine that Beijing wants to instigate an invasion of Taiwan. Even as the US continues to flail in Kabul. It’s less difficult to believe China is taking advantage of the US situation to pave the way for what it views as the next stage in the campaign to bring Taiwan back into the fold.

In response to growing concerns about US resolve, the White House has stated that the United States remains committed to Taiwan. Despite the reassuring words, it remains to be seen if the Biden administration is prepared for the possibility that Chinese President Xi Jinping might probe more aggressively around Taiwan in the coming days, effectively setting up a litmus test to see how far the US will go to support Taiwan. Certainly not the most likely event, but hardly one the White House can discount at this point.

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.