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Flashpoint in Taiwan Strait worrying

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Flashpoint in Taiwan Strait worrying

Taiwan has urged the US to defend the island in the event of conflict with China. Taiwan’s National Defense Minister, Yen The-fa, fears that the Taiwan Strait could replace the Korean Peninsula as the hottest flashpoint in the region

Like the South China Sea, the Taiwan issue is another flashpoint where China’s belligerence seems to be in full display. China has always seen Taiwan as a breakaway province, which it wants to integrate with the mainland someday by peaceful means and if needed, by force. This threat of the use of force raises the spectre of a conflict which, if breaks out, shall draw other powers, thereby enlarging the scope to develop into a major conflict. North Korea’s nuclear and missile development is already a matter of concern that has engaged stakeholders to strive for peace. Even when the spectre of long-term peace looms with the forthcoming summit between the US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, the Taiwan issue always comes up, raising fresh tensions.

After his re-election to a second term in office, Chinese President Xi Jinping struck a strongly nationalistic tone in his closing address to the annual session of the National People’s Congress, the ceremonial Parliament, with a firm assertion that China would never allow “one inch” of territory to be separated from it. Xi thundered that China is ready to wage a “bloody war” to assume its due place in the world. Against the background of the decision of the National People’s Congress to abolish term limits on his rule, which allows Xi to remain in office beyond 2023 indefinitely, this observation by Xi has huge implications for the region. A belligerent Xi, now enjoying a lifetime tenure, asserted that the Chinese people were “closer now than at any time in history to realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

China has periodically flexed its military muscle by military drills or sending naval vessels around Taiwan to intimidate, which Taiwan sees as “threats” to its national security. Not to be cowed down, Taiwan’s first female President and leader of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai Ing-wen, elected to office in May 2016, wants to maintain peace but warned that if pushed, she will defend Taiwan’s security. Tsai wants to maintain the status quo and has advocated a policy of keeping a further distance between the two sides. In October 2017, The Washington Free Beacon reported that the newly discovered internal military documents indicated that China will invade Taiwan by force before 2020. Xi has warned the self-ruled island that it would face the “punishment of history” if it made any attempt toward separatism.

After China and Taiwan split amid a civil war in 1949, their political systems have headed in opposite directions since the 1980s. After a spell of authoritarian governments, Taiwan democratised in the 1980s and an overwhelming section of population is opposed to unification with authoritarian China. After Xi’s threat, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry urged other countries to support Taipei’s role as a democracy in the region. Taiwan is walking a tight rope. While Beijing is likely to continue to ratchet up its political and military pressure on the island, it rolls out incentives to woo younger Taiwan citizens and business leaders over to its camp. In March 2018, Beijing announced 31 measures making it easier for Taiwanese to work, study, and invest in China. Now, with the prospect of Xi staying in power indefinitely, a more aggressive posture by China on Taiwan with a view to integrate with the mainland either by persuasion or by use of force may not be unthinkable. Taiwan is one of the most sensitive issues for Beijing. Both the mainland China and Taiwan technically remain a single country, each considering the other a “renegade province”.

Early in May 2018, China’s People’s Liberation Army-Air Force planes conducted military drills around Taiwan aimed at intimidating the island’s “independence forces”. Taiwan reported that the aircraft involved in the exercise included the Xian H-6A bomber, Sukhoi Su-35 and Shenyang J-11 fighters, the Shaanxi Y-8 transport plane, Kj-2000 early warning aircraft and Tupolev Tu-154 electronic surveillance aircraft. It was for the first time that China’s Su-35 fighters and H-6K bombers had flown through the Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan from the Philippines. This demonstrated that China’s Su-35 fighter jets were combat-ready. China feels that with a stronger command and strike capability, the Su-35’s participation provides a stronger deterrence to “Taiwan independence” forces. In response, Taiwan displayed its Indigenous Defense Fighter and F-16 jets and monitored Chinese maneuvers “to ensure defence security”. China expects more such drills and is prepared to “defend China’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity”.

As said, Taiwan is seen as a wayward territory that must and will eventually be brought back into the fold, which is why China has been increasing military patrols of the island, especially after Tsai’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was elected to power in 2016. China conducted similar drills in April 2018 when it flew a pair of H-6K bombers over the Miyako Strait. On its own, Taiwan conducts yearly live-fire drills. This year, it is expected to start on June 4 and include Taiwan’s Coast Guard and National Airborne Service Corps. The main goal of such drills is “to ensure failure of any Chinese Communist military mission to invade Taiwan”. 

Such manoeuvring of advanced air and military power by either side makes the Taiwan Strait one of the hottest flashpoints. Taiwan has urged the US to defend the island in the event of conflict with China. Taiwan’s National Defense Minister Yen The-fa fears that the Taiwan Strait could replace the Korean Peninsula as the hottest flashpoint in the region. Taiwan rests high hopes on the US M1A2 Abrams tanks to defend the island if attacked by China. The M1A2 Abrams is among the most technologically advanced tanks in the world and is ranked third best. No Chinese tank appears on their top 10 list. On its own, too, Taiwan is enhancing its combat readiness. 

As tensions have increased, Taiwan also plans to allocate greater defence spending. The Tsai Government refused to ratify the 1992 consensus acknowledging the two countries as “one China”. This makes Beijing fear that Taiwan might declare independence any time. Therefore, strengthening US-Taiwan relations with a view to send a strong message to Beijing not to mess up on the Taiwan issue is a priority for both Taiwan and the US. The guidelines of the new Congressional Acts entail that changes should be implemented in close consultation with Taiwan. However, Trump’s unpredictable statements at times worry Taiwan. At times, Taiwan fears that it could be treated as a pawn or bargaining chip in the US-China relations. Trump’s recent trade actions against China reignite such fears. It is inexplicable why Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, advocated using the “Taiwan card” to counter China’s assertiveness, which only inflames fears in Taiwan. Taiwan could have reason to justify why its confidence in the US as a friend and partner runs risk of being undermined. It is desirable that the US regularly remains in touch and consult with Taiwan on its dealings with China.

The primary US interest has to be to maintain peace so that Taiwan prospers free from Chinese coercion. If Beijing continues to threaten Taiwan, the US ought to reassure of its support and intervention if the situation warrants. Beijing is not expected to lower its threats, which make the US reassurances to Taiwan more compelling.

In one more escalatory move, the Chinese Air Force stated that its fighter jets, reconnaissance planes, and bombers took part in “combat drills” around Taiwan as part of a series of exercises “to strengthen its capacity to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity”. China claims that the DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missiles, dubbed “Guam Killer”, were introduced in service because of its ability to attack the US naval base in the Pacific Ocean both with a conventional or nuclear weapon. While Chinese media blamed the drills on Taiwan, calling them a direct response to its “provocations”, Taiwan accused China of “saber-rattling.

China’s hostility towards the island has grown since the 2016 election of Tsai from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Since then, Beijing has been issuing increasingly strident calls for Taiwan to toe the line, even as Tsai has pledged to maintain the status quo and keep the peace. This has not dissuaded Beijing from increasing further military intimidation.

The US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 but has kept trade ties with the island and remains its top supplier of weapons. So far, the US remains committed to intervene and defend Taiwan in the event of China making an attempt to annex by the use of force. But an unpredictable President Trump may use the Taiwan card to settle trade issues of the US with China. Such a possibility increases the volatility of the situation and makes the Taiwan Strait issue a major flashpoint.   

The writer, a former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, was until recently the ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan




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