Taiwan Airspace is Getting Crowded
China’s Air Force has been busy lately, flying what they are calling training flights in close proximity to Taiwan. While the Pentagon acknowledges that it is a thinly veiled attempt at intimidation, they are not willing to take the bait.
On Thursday, a senior DoD official told the South China Morning Post that the U.S. is “mindful of the problems with the [Chinese] challenges and potential escalation.” The Pentagon will not “take the bait and respond to provocations by China trying to initiate anything,” he said.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force confirmed on Thursday through its blog that multiple missions had been launched from separate bases featuring fighter jets, early warning planes and the H-6K long-range bomber. This is the second set of training exercises of this type around Taiwan in the past two weeks.
According to the official report, the planes circled Taiwan, crossing the Bashi Strait to the south and the Miyako Strait to the north along China’s naval border with Japan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has ratcheted up the rhetoric against any thoughts of independence for Taiwan in recent months, going so far as to say in his March speech to the National People’s Congress that any attempts at separatism would “face the punishment of history.” The heightened rhetoric has been underscored by PLA live fire drills conducted in the Taiwan Straits this week, led by China’s only fully operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
Not intending their longstanding ally to feel abandoned, the Pentagon confirmed that US B-52 bombers had been deployed to reassure American allies in the Pacific region that the US would continue to be a presence in Asia. “China has said they want us to leave the region. We are not going to leave the region.”
The B-52’s, stationed on Guam, are reported to have flown within 250 kilometers of China’s coastline by civilian Taiwan sources that track aircraft, particular USAF assets, in the region.
Referring to Thursday’s live-fire drills, Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., warned in a lecture at Harvard University that China would try every possible means to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Tightening Ties with Washington and Taipei
The Trump administration began to exhibit a warming towards Taiwan — even during the transition phase just after the 2016 election — when the White House took a congratulatory call from the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and broke a nearly 40-year-old diplomatic protocol governing China-US ties.
At that time, Trump made it clear his intention was to use a closeness with Taiwan to force more concessions on trade from China. The suggestion was met with overwhelming criticism and cynicism even in Taiwan where it raised serious concerns that it might used as a pawn and discarded.
China tends to take particular umbrage to sales of weapons to Taiwan by any foreign governments, especially the United States and recently the Trump administration has approved licences for American firms to sell Taiwan the technology to build submarines. They also signed the Taiwan Travel Act to encourage visits between American and Taiwanese officials. China has mounted vocal protests to both of these actions.
All of this is playing out in the shadow of a looming trade war and at a time when many of the moderate voices in the West Wing have been replaced by those considered more hawkish on China. Freshly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are known to take tough line on China, especially when it comes to Taiwan.
In June the de facto embassy for the U.S. in Taipei — the American Institute in Taiwan or AIT — is due to move into a new building. Should Bolton or another senior U.S. official attend the opening dedication ceremony as some suspect, China will only see this as a serious and direct provocation.
China’s official policy has always been that it will seek peaceful reunification with Taiwan but not rule out using force to take it over. In the past, officials and state media have tended to emphasize the peaceful reunification part — more recently they have been quite vocal about using force. China has never publicly given a timetable for reunification with Taiwan but some mainland analysts have started to preach the idea that reunification could take place by 2035 or 2050.
Xi Jinping’s public rhetoric seems to match that theory. Meanwhile on Taiwan, talk of independence has become more vocal as well, a sentiment that had given way to domestic issues for some time but has now worked its way back onto the main stage.
So What? War?
If the Taiwan Strait does go hot in the future, will the U.S. be drawn into the fight? As the late China specialist Brian Shea used to remind even the most supposedly seasoned war fighters at U.S. Pacific Command, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) has no explicit guarantee requiring the US to come to Taiwan’s defense. It is a common mistake that has grown into legend.
The TRA’s security-commitment falls short of a defense treaty. Whereas the former defense treaty spoke only of armed attack as a pre-requisite for American defense of Taiwan, the TRA expands the number of contingencies that might trigger a U.S. response. But most of the TRA language is rendered as statements of policy and not law, and so lacks binding force. For example, the TRA only states a U.S. policy of having the capacity to resist coercion against Taiwan, not an explicit commitment to use those capabilities. The only thing that a U.S. administration must do in a crisis is report to Congress.
The more the U.S. plays the Taiwan card, the more the Independence movement in the ROC feels emboldened, which in turn, only raises the ire of the PRC. It’s a vicious and potentially dangerous cycle that needs to be monitored closely.
Featured Image Courtesy of Twitter