Over the past month, the Republic of China (ROC) sounded the alarm bells about the incursion of the Air Force of the People’s Liberation Army (APLA). A record number of Communist Chinese planes entered Taiwan’s air defense zone in four days, more than 150 per account. Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said the current incursions represent the biggest conflict between Taiwan and China in 40 years, possibly referring to the US and UN relinquishing sovereignty. recognized by Taiwan in the 1970s in favor of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan represents the last missing piece of the PRC’s one-China policy, creating grim prospects for any future acceptance of an independent Taiwan. All of the PRC’s top leaders, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, have said Taiwan’s fate is one of unification, no matter what the cost. So what is so shocking about the current situation and what can we expect?
Acts of coercion and restraint have been a recurring theme in Taiwan-China relations, but recently evidence shows a startling increase in resources over the past year. In March 2019, for the first time in over 20 years, two J-11 fighters flew over the Taiwan Strait Median line. The following September, two J-11s and several other PLAAFs planes crossed Taiwanese airspace. In April of this year, dozens of bombers from Hong Kong flew a 9-hour mission aerial bombardment exercise after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and US President Joe Biden publicly declared their determination to keep Taiwan safe.
What is different now?
The situation most comparable to what we saw in early October is the second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-1996. In response to the democratic elections in Taipei, China fired missiles around the island and increased naval movements in the Taiwan Strait. Bound by the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States then sent naval battle groups with two aircraft carriers, ultimately defusing the situation when China withdrew in response. Overall, the situation looks similar. China is leveraging its power in the region and putting pressure on Taiwan, questioning Taiwan’s national status. Along with several allies, the United States formed a naval contingent to repel aggression from China. That said, the disaggregation gives a much sharper picture last month.
After September 11, the United States shifted its military focus to meet the combat needs of its global war on terrorism in the Middle East and South Asia. But the PRC has never forgotten the second Taiwan Strait Crisis and has since braced itself for a more favorable outcome in the future, one that we may see play out soon. The PRC realized that it had to be prepared to defend against an American attack, possibly against an aircraft carrier. Since then, China has increased its military spending and invested in the necessary armaments damage or even sink a modern aircraft carrier. China’s strategy is a strategy of deterrence in that it would require the United States to assume a much larger military role if Taiwan is to be defended. The threat of losing an aircraft carrier places a heavy burden on the United States. While the United States has a broad military reach and many Pacific allies, China has a regional geographic advantage. If China can protect itself from US-sponsored aircraft carriers and regional allies, there is little the United States can do to defend Taiwan.
In 2014, the PRC saw Russia’s “little green men” take Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine within hours without, to date, any significant repercussions from the United States, the United States. NATO or the rest of the world. U.S. domestic unrest, the international community’s fallout from COVID-19, a robust economy and a growing army driven by Asia-Pacific security goals are helping pave the way for Xi to demand Taiwan’s return to the fold.
China shows significant increases in military spending. Since 1996, China has double-digit annual growth rates military spending. The People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) navy has grown from a lack of modern submarines in 1995 to nearly 50 now. In addition, the PLAN increased its modern destroyers from under five to 45 and also developed over 400 warships. The world should expect China maintain a fleet around 530 warships and submarines by 2030. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (CV-16), was just fully operational in 2015. China has now commissioned a second carrier -planes and is in the process of building a third. While PLAN’s aircraft carriers are hardly comparable to those of the US Navy, they are suited to intimidate their little neighbors. The number of PLAN ships is not small, and the American and Taiwanese malaise should not be.
As it stands, the most important concern for the PRC, Taiwan, the United States and the world is an accident which will result in death. The sharp increase in PLAAF sorties, the response from Taiwan and the US-led battle group entering the region are all cause for concern. A misfire or a hasty decision from senior management to a junior pilot officer will cause the spark that will ignite the sensitive region. The possibility of an accident is not that hard to believe. October 7e, the US Navy announced that one of its submarines collided with a “unknown object“in the South China Sea. Whatever the identity of the object, it doesn’t matter how the United States and China react. For example, confusion over the second Gulf of Tonkin incident has prompted states -United in an active war in Vietnam. Also, when considering the nuclear capabilities of the United States and China, we must remember that there has been at least 22 known cases potential nuclear misfires and other incidents. We cannot make the mistake of thinking that a war of attrition or increased nuclear concern is far away. The underwater collision can serve as a “bump” in the night for a larger monster.
In the past, the PRC has always pursued a proposal of a two-system country which would see the democratic government of the PRC remain intact while being placed under the flag of the PRC. The observation of the PRC’s recent crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic system justifies the ROC’s mistrust of such a policy. Even more then, Xi’s current rhetoric and increasingly aggressive military activities offer very little room for maneuver for the democratic government in Taipei.
Despite what would be a major political victory for Xi, after his promotion to “President for life”, Taiwan holds a great strategic imperative for mainland China. Like a stationary aircraft carrier, Taiwan is stationed 150 miles from the Chinese coast. To put it in perspective, Cuba is only 50 miles closer to the tip of Florida, making the distance between the strait a drop in the bucket of the stretching South China Sea. over 1.5 million square miles. Based on its location, the PLA would be able to appropriate the larger islet of the Spratly Islands and would be able to put pressure on other states. This would change the entire geopolitical establishment in the Indo-Pacific, increasing the security dilemma in the region.
Dependence on the United States has been a central element of Taiwan’s national defense strategy. During the Cold War, American planes, ships and nuclear missiles were regularly stationed in Taiwan to support Chaing Kai-shek, coerce a revisionist Mao, and exert military pressure on the east coast of the USSR. Despite massive sales of US military equipment, multiple training programs, regular war games, and an uninformed tweet from US Senator John Cornyn, there have been no officially recognized US military troops stationed in Taiwan since 1979. Recent reports of US special forces training Taiwanese soldiers are not necessarily news but acknowledge a regional fact. Taiwan has received solid military aid from the United States over the past decades. In August, the Biden administration provided $ 750 million in military aid to Taipei. While similar to previous administrations, the timing couldn’t be more careful.
A note for the alarm
The current situation in the South China Sea is said to be by far the biggest geopolitical concern since January 6e, 2021. That said, all countries involved should be aware of the repercussions of the scam. Much of the American public is unaware of Taiwan’s multifaceted history and its relationship with the PRC. Like Taiwan, the United States has a complex relationship with the PRC. As each state’s largest trading partner, a deliberate increase in tensions between the two superpowers would be disastrous. China and the United States are both members of the UN Security Council and are two of the nine countries that have nuclear weapons. In addition, China makes about 97 percent of all antibiotics used in the USA. An informed bipartisan response must take shape in the United States against warmongering. War is never an impossibility, and its consideration must be handled with caution.
In essence, what we are currently seeing in the Taiwan Strait should be predictable but terrifying. With China’s growing political, military, economic and territorial influence, Taiwan falling prey to the PRC seems to be only a matter of time. What the United States chooses to do from now on will be critical to understanding what its foreign policy will look like in the next 50 years. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have questioned the role of the United States as a hegemon and its responsibilities to its allies. Under current conditions, China is acting like a power opportunist, filling a vacuum in Asia-Pacific, created either by the United States or by sheer coercion. What China is doing in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait is a manifestation of its national development that has taken place since Mao’s death. The United States needs to stop pretending and start thinking clearly.
* Matt Ellis, PhD student, Political Science, Purdue University