A US Navy destroyer transiting the Taiwan Strait today had a considerable number of watchers accompanying her. Chinese warships and aircraft closely monitored the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Mustin as she sailed through the tense waters separating China from Taiwan. Mustin was conducting a Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise run to remind China of the US commitment to free and open sea movement in the Western Pacific. The destroyer was observing international law closely during the transit and not taking any actions which could be considered provocative.
China had a different opinion, however. Reuters has reported the Chinese government accused the US of provocation and a statement released by the Chinese military supports this claim. FON missions “deliberately raise the temperature of the Taiwan issue, as they fear calm in the Taiwan Strait, and send flirtatious glances to Taiwan independence forces, seriously jeopardizing peace and stability in the strait.”
It was the location of the FON exercise that has concerned China most. US Navy warships have moved through the Taiwan Strait over a dozen times in the past year, leading Beijing to worry that a US-Taiwan military relationship is currently in the making. China vehemently opposes such a relationship now at a time when it is concerned Taiwan could be planning to declare its independence. At present, China views Taiwan as a breakaway province destined to be reattached to the mainland at some point in the future. Preferably by peaceful means. In recent months, however, China has been rattling its saber with increasingly vexatious and regular military exercises around Taiwan.
There is a growing level of concern in Taiwan that the incoming Biden administration will adopt a less aggressive stance against China’s expansionist aims compared to the Trump administration. This change, some government officials in Taipei worry, could persuade Beijing to move against Taiwan within the next 12 to 15 months.
Taiwanese concern over continued Chinese military exercises and activity in and around Taiwan Strait is once again becoming apparent. Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu, while conducting an interview with Stan Grant of Australia’s ABC News program The World voiced his belief that the risk of a military conflict in that area is increasing. Through the summer and fall months of 2020, when world attention was focused elsewhere, Chinese naval and air activity in the Taiwan Strait area was extensive. Wu went on to say that Taiwan’s government is now ‘very concerned’ about the prospects of a Chinese invasion of the island. China’s increased military posture around Taiwan comes as part of multiple Chinese moves beyond its borders. From leashing Hong Kong and dragging it fully into the Chinese sphere of influence, to the territorial expansions into the South China and East China seas.
Taiwan faces an uncertain future at the moment. Its close relationship with the United States will become even more valuable through the next four years. A Biden administration is not going to provide Taiwan with the material support that the Trump administration has. Nor will it stand firmly behind Taiwan as a counterbalance to recent Chinese actions and behavior in the Western Pacific. Although Joe Biden claims his administration will continue to support Taiwan, a look back at the relationships that the Obama, and Bush administrations had with Taiwan earlier in the century show that Taipei has valid reason to worry.
Even now as relations between Beijing and other powers in the Western Pacific have turned sour it provides no advantage for Taiwan. In the event of a large-scale PRC military operation against the island, Taiwan will have no formal allies it can turn to for assistance. Historically, the United States is the only friend it can rely on in the event of a crisis. But with Joe Biden sadly likely to take power in January, 2021, even that is no longer a guarantee.
Chinese air and naval activity around Taiwan has risen considerably in the month of June. On Friday Chinese warplanes conducted exercises in the airspace off the southwestern coast of Taiwan. This was the eighth time in June that these exercises took place. While the number of exercises this year is comparable to the same time last year, the recent increase could be the first steps towards an escalation in the area if continued. Given the ongoing standoff between China and India, and the rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, it is only fair to assume the exercises off Taiwan serve a much larger purpose beyond rattling Taipei’s cage. A message is also being sent to the United States through these exercises: Stop strengthening ties with Taiwan.
The US has been increasing economic ties to Taiwan over the past few years, and the Trump administration regularly cites Taiwan as being a model democracy. On the surface, Beijing continues to work towards a peaceful, uncoerced reunification with Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province. Last year President Xi Jinping called for reunification model under a ‘one country, two systems’ model similar to what China has in place with Hong Kong. Understandably, the Taiwanese people are not warm to that proposal after what has taken place in Hong Kong in the last twelve months.
These exercises are a thinly veiled message for the US to keep its distance from Taiwan and not intervene in what Beijing considers an internal matter. They also serve as a warning that if push comes to shove, China is capable of isolating Taiwan from US bases in Okinawa and Guam, which is where the first wave of reinforcements would come from in the event of a crisis.
With China now active on several fronts, how it maneuvers with regards to Taiwan in the next two weeks will be telling. If Beijing increases the heat in the South China Sea, or Himalayas, will it do the same with Taiwan? And if so, how will the US respond?
In a televised interview with a CNN reporter, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen issued a warning about the People’s Republic of China’s growing military power, and increasingly assertive foreign policy in the region. Tsai said the threat of military action against Taiwan increases by the day, and she may not be exaggerating. China has been running live fire exercises close to Taiwanese territory on a regular basis lately, and there have been incidents of PLAAF aircraft flying dangerously close to Taiwan.
Beijing has also placed heavy diplomatic pressure on Taiwan with a presidential election coming there next year. International support for Taiwan has declined over the past few years largely because of Chinese efforts to undermine and isolate Taiwan. In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of working towards the peaceful reunification of China, and Taiwan. Xi warned that Taiwan independence was a “dead end” and made it a point to mention that China did not rule out the use of force to bring Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, back into the fold.
The opposition Kuomintang party (KMT) said it might be inclined to sign a peace deal with China if it wins the presidential election in 2020. Beijing has already begun making overtures to the party and will continue to in the leadup to the election. The purpose of the overtures is obviously to isolate Tsai’s government and help sway the election results.
On Wednesday, Tsai told reporters Taiwan will not accept an agreement that encroaches on the nation’s sovereignty, or democracy. She has called on the nation’s allies, and the international community as a whole to stand with Taiwan in the face of China’s threats and actions.
Two US warships conducted a transit of the Taiwan Strait on Monday. The cruiser USS Antietam, and destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed through the strait to demonstrate the US commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a US military spokesman. This was the second Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise conducted by US naval forces in the Taiwan Strait over the past three months. Chinese warships shadowed Antietam and Wilbur during the voyage, maintaining a safe distance, and not making any moves that could be considered provocative.
The US move is likely to aggravate the already high tensions between the United States and China. Along with the ongoing trade war, US Freedom of Navigation exercises in the Western Pacific have irritated Beijing. By extending the exercises to include the Taiwan Strait, the Trump administration is also sending a message that its support of Taiwan remains unchanged. This could be difficult for Beijing to stomach. The People’s Republic of China still regards Taiwan as a ‘lost province’ of sorts to eventually be reunified with the mainland. China has vowed to reclaim Taiwan at some point, and through the use of force if necessary.