Taiwan Under Threat… But Is War Really Imminent?

In response to the Biden administration’s diplomatic overtures to Taiwan, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force made repeated incursions into Taiwanese airspace, raising hackles across both the Strait and the Pacific. The tensions began last week after the State Department relaxed rules limiting official visits to Taiwan—a policy first implemented by Trump-era Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but initially ignored by the Biden team. At The Financial Times, Demetri Sevastopulo wrote about what the new regulations mean for how American officials can, and cannot, engage with Taiwan:

Under the new guidelines, US officials will be able to regularly host Taiwanese officials at federal government buildings. They will also be permitted to meet their counterparts at Taiwan’s economic and cultural offices, which serve as de facto embassies and consulates.

US officials will also be able to attend events at Twin Oaks, a 17-acre estate in Washington that served as the residence of the Republic of China (Taiwan) ambassador until the US switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

But the US official said there would still be some “guard rails”, such as not allowing officials to attend functions at Twin Oaks on major Taiwanese holidays that might complicate the One China policy. Another will be a prohibition on displaying the Taiwanese flag when US officials meet their counterparts. [Source]

Although Chinese military pressure on Taiwan is not new —warplanes simulated an attack on a U.S. aircraft carrier near Taiwan in the early days of the Biden administration—the size and frequency of the recent incursions are unprecedented. After the announcement, the Chinese military flew “14 J-16 and four J-10 fighters[…] four H-6K bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons, two anti-submarine aircraft and an early warning aircraft” over Taiwan, according to Al Jazeera. Afterwards, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office called the flights “combat exercises,” adding that “It is a solemn response to external forces’ interference and provocations by Taiwan independence,” according to Reuters. In what it deemed to be a “routine… transit,” the United States deployed an aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Strait, an action which the Chinese government claimed “willfully disrupted the regional situation.” The following day, the Chinese navy deployed the Liaoning, the country’s first aircraft carrier, to the Strait as well. The maneuvering was accompanied by social media posturing: Chinese state media released a number of fighter jet videos and the United States Navy released a photograph of two officers nonchalantly observing a Chinese carrier across the water. Despite the martial buildup, war remains unlikely reported Erin Hale for Al Jazeera:

“This challenge is nothing new. Rather, it reflects an updated threat perception of the CCP and PLA in the context of US strategic competition with China,” [said Eric Lee, a research associate at the Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia.]

[… An invasion of Taiwan carries significant risks for China.] First, its forces would have to cross the 180km (100-mile) Taiwan Strait with more than 100,000 soldiers and supplies, according to Michael Tsai, who served as Taiwan’s vice minister of defence and then minister of defence between 2004 and 2008.

En route, they would face aerial and naval bombardment and, if they managed to land, strong local resistance.

[…] For Taiwan expert and historian Bill Sharp, a former visiting scholar at National Taiwan University, such a manoeuvre would be “more difficult than a D-Day Landing” due to Taiwan’s geography, rough waters, and unreliable weather patterns. Its coastline also offers few suitable beaches, he said, for landing “armoured personnel carriers, tanks, artillery, or large numbers of invading troops.” [Source]

In an opinion piece published at NPR, three influential figures in the field of Asia policy, Richard Bush, Bonnie Glasser, and Ryan Hass, warned against hyping the risk of invasion, which they argue strengthens China:

As troubling as the trend-lines of Chinese behavior are, it would be a mistake to infer that they represent a prelude to an unalterable catastrophe. China’s top priority now and in the foreseeable future is to deter Taiwan independence rather than compel unification. Beijing remains confident in its capacity to achieve this near-term objective, even as it sets the groundwork for its long-term goal of unification. Indeed, based on polling on attitudes regarding defense, we believe the people of Taiwan already are sober to the risks of pursuing independence.

[…] Beijing’s goal is to constantly remind Taiwan’s people of its growing power, induce pessimism about Taiwan’s future, deepen splits within the island’s political system and show that outside powers are impotent to counter its flexes.

[…] Hyping the threat that China poses to Taiwan does Beijing’s work for it. Taiwan’s people need reasons for confidence in their own future, not just reminders of their vulnerabilities. [Source]

On Wednesday, April 14 a delegation of former U.S. officials—former Senator Christopher Dodd and former deputy secretaries of state, Richard Armitage and James Steinberg—landed in Taiwan on behalf of President Joe Biden. The Chinese government is unhappy with the meeting, saying it will “only add to the tensions.” At The Wall Street Journal, Chao Deng wrote about the American delegation’s visit:

During their three-day stay, the U.S. delegation will dine with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and the foreign minister, and discuss bilateral relations, the Taiwan side said. Taiwan’s state-run Central News Agency reported Wednesday that Taiwanese officials would brief the U.S. delegation on China’s recent provocations against the island and across the region, and call for increased support from Washington on trade, security and economic matters.

[…] Many Taiwanese people had predicted the Biden administration to take a more dovish approach to the island compared with the Trump administration, which riled Beijing by sending two senior U.S. officials to Taipei last year. Washington formally severed diplomatic ties with the island in 1979, although a U.S. law commits Washington to ensuring that the island is capable of defending itself.

Instead, the Biden administration is largely continuing down the Trump administration’s path of increasing in-person exchanges with Taiwanese officials. The U.S. State Department this month loosened restrictions on official government contacts with Taiwanese counterparts to encourage engagement as part of what it called “our deepening unofficial relationship” with the island. [Source]

Relations are markedly different on the economic front. The United States plans to tag Taiwan as a currency manipulator—even as it eschews the same label for China. Apart from a ban on Taiwanese pineapples, trade between the China and Taiwan has increased steadily: 43.9% of Taiwanese exports now go to the Chinese market. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the global leader in chip manufacturing, sells chips that are used by the Chinese military, including an outfit involved in “nuclear explosive activities.”


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