Lara Seligman and Paul McLeary
2021 10 05
Tensions are mounting once more between Beijing and Washington, as China pushes a record-breaking number of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
The friction has raised renewed fears of the Chinese threat to Taiwan and its potential to draw in the West, particularly at a time when the United States and the United Kingdom are operating three aircraft carriers along with their destroyer escorts nearby in the Philippine Sea.
While a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not imminent, experts say China is playing the long game and is likely to continue upping the pressure on the self-governing island whose disputed political status has long been a fraught subject.
“We should think of China’s approach to Taiwan not as a bifurcated decision between war and peace but instead a continuous pressure campaign that can take various lethal and non-lethal forms,” said Eric Sayers, an expert in Asia-Pacific security policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Beijing can turn this pressure up or down as it chooses, but it is always occurring in a sustained manner towards the goal of reunification.”
Three years after former President Donald Trump launched his trade war with China, indications are that President Joe Biden’s administration is continuing his confrontational approach to the bilateral relationship, while rallying Western and regional allies around calling out Beijing for its flouting of international norms.
The recent events come on the heels of a historic security pact between the U.S., U.K. and Australia to provide Canberra with the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines, a deal seen as an effort to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
And in September, the leaders of the four nations that make up the informal “Quad” grouping — the U.S., Japan, India and Australia — reiterated their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific that is “undaunted by coercion,” a careful statement aimed indirectly at Beijing.
“[T]hings are going badly for Beijing at the political level,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Trump Pentagon official who is now a principal at the think tank the Marathon Initiative. “Instead they might decide to just use their increasing military capability.”
The flights into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone increased from 38 a day on Friday to 52 on Monday.
The four-day barrage of sorties by fighter planes, bombers and surveillance planes could be primarily meant for domestic consumption, as they started on China’s National Day of Oct. 1. Taiwan’s own National Day is on Oct. 10.
“This is absolutely a wonderful opportunity to remind Taiwan of its proper place in the world, in Beijing’s view,” said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese military capabilities at the Heritage Foundation. He noted that flying dozens of planes a day near the island forces the much smaller Taiwanese air force to respond.
Over the weekend, Beijing criticized the U.S. for sailing warships in international waters in the region and for selling Taiwan new weapons. But since China “has no previous record of responding to U.S. or allied warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait with incursions of this magnitude, this suggests that something else is going on,” said Adrian Ang, research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Most likely the flights are a “nationalistic show of force or harassment of Taiwan on the occasion of China’s National Day on October 1, or even extending possibly to the ‘golden week’ holiday for propaganda purposes,” he added.
The incursions are nothing new, even if the size and frequency of the sorties have grown. China has already doubled the number of times it has flown its warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone this year over 2020, hitting the 667 mark on Monday. In 2020, there were 380 such flights.
Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, which is unilaterally declared for reasons of military air defense, extends far beyond its national airspace. A handful of countries across the globe have their own self-declared air identification zones.
“This has become the new normal in the Taiwan Strait, this is part of the training for the PLA air force, and the naval air assets as well,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund.
Chinese President Xi Jinping “is emphasizing PLA readiness to fight tonight,” Glaser said. “He is emphasizing training in a way that has not been emphasized previously,” so larger and more ambitious sorties may be a reality that the region will have to deal with.
But officials are concerned that Chinese military action aimed at Taiwan could eventually draw in the U.S., as well as potentially the U.K. and Pacific powers such as Australia and Japan. Washington’s position on whether it would defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion is purposefully ambiguous, but the Biden administration has strongly signaled its support of Taipei with arms sales and high-level meetings.
In a statement late Monday, the Pentagon said the United States is "concerned" by China’s "provocative military activity" around Taiwan, which "is destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability."
"We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coercion against Taiwan,” said spokesperson Lt. Col. Martin Meiners. “The U.S. commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.”
The statement reflects what White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday, pledging that the U.S. “will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability.”
Military officials have also recently sounded the alarm about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the next five or six years, as well as Beijing’s growing military capability, including rapidly increasing numbers of navy ships and nuclear weapons.
“Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before ,” retired Adm. Phil Davidson, then-commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate in March. “And I think the threat will manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
Right now, Beijing is likely trying to wear down Taiwan’s defenses by forcing its air force to repeatedly respond to the provocations, Colby said, while at the same time dulling its alertness to a potential attack.
“They spend a lot of time and money and effort scrambling to meet these provocations, and at some point, people say, ‘Oh this is normal,’” Colby said.
But China’s latest actions toward Taiwan also expose its political weakness, Sayers said, pointing to the deepening unofficial relationship between Taipei and Washington as “a further blow to Beijing’s plans to isolate Taiwan.”
The latest round of Chinese incursions began Friday, when 38 warplanes surged into the air defense identification zone, followed by another 39 aircraft on Saturday, which was until Monday the largest Chinese sortie into the area to date.
Over the weekend, the U.S. and U.K. also did some muscle-flexing in the Philippine Sea near Okinawa, with three aircraft carriers along with their destroyer escorts maneuvering together in a major show of force.
The USS Ronald Reagan, returning to Japan from its deployment to the Middle East, teamed up with the USS Carl Vinson and HMS Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by other warships from Japan, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Canada.
The Vinson and Queen Elizabeth broke off on Tuesday and pushed into the South China Sea. Both ships carry air wings of F-35 fighters, with U.S. Marine aircraft operating aboard the British ship. The Vinson is the first American carrier to deploy with the fifth-generation fighter.
The U.S. Navy has been averaging a transit of the Taiwan Strait — the narrow waterway between the island and mainland China — once a month under the Biden administration. The nine freedom-of-navigation transits so far in 2021 come after 15 transits in 2020. There were just nine transits in 2019.
In many ways, the radical increase in the size and tempo of Chinese flights near Taiwan could just be the cost of the growing military competition between China and the U.S. and its allies.
“I think it’s destabilizing and it does raise the risk of an accident, but it isn’t illegal,” the German Marshall Fund’s Glaser said.