On October 5, as tensions between Taiwan and China reached a fever pitch, the Chinese government flew dozens of fighter planes and bombers over the small, sovereign territory. This display of strength comes as the latest tussle in a decades-long history of diplomatic instability. In the wake of the demonstrations, Taiwan has acted with haste, referring to China as the “chief culprit” of the recently renewed tensions and dispersing new materiel to protect the island’s defense zone.
In a well-rehearsed tango involving the same parties that have played out similar scenes for decades, diplomatic responses from Taiwan and the U.S. poured in. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council offered a decisive statement of defiance: “We sternly tell the Chinese Communists, the Republic of China on Taiwan is determined to firmly defend national sovereignty and dignity and peace across the Taiwan Strait.”
Soon after, the United States condemned China’s actions as “destabilizing” and asked Xi Jinping to halt active military operations near the Chinese-claimed island. China’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying the U.S. was intervening in the region’s peace by providing arms to Taiwan and sailing its warships through the Taiwan Strait. “Engaging in Taiwan independence is a dead end. China will take all steps needed and firmly smash any Taiwan independence plots,” the ministry offered in response to the U.S presence, with particular vitriol. “China’s determination and will to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering.” The ministry concluded its statement with a request that the U.S. immediately terminate its support for all Taiwan forces.
The ministry’s concluding statement offered a searing indictment of the U.S. military presence that heightened in 2020, when the U.S. increased its naval influence in the Indo-Pacific of late in hopes of stalling Beijing’s grabs for strategic waterways. One year later, tensions have only grown. While international invasion is not considered imminent, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen warned that if Beijing holds up its threat to win back the island by force, “It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.”
The recent rise in tensions stems in part from the improvement of the Chinese military; numerous defense analysts, including Euan Graham of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, have observed that Chinese planes flown over Taiwan included sophisticated fighters, bombers and airborne early warning aircraft. Such shows of military might gesture towards military encroachments that would promise attractive incentives: a Chinese-controlled Taiwan would open China’s military to the west Pacific and the South China Sea.
The U.S, Japan, Britain, Canada, Netherlands, and New Zealand have carried out military maneuvers northeast of Taiwan in shows of protest against China’s Indo-Pacific hegemony. Australia’s recent deal with the U.S and Britain to obtain nuclear-powered submarines has only heightened such tensions. Some have tried to negotiate an increasingly land-mine ridden diplomatic landscape: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has valued a connection with China while also hoping to team up with similar democracies and improve a defense alliance with other countries.
Yet, recent Chinese encroachments suggest that China is hardly deterred. With Taiwan’s military on the decrease and the constant fear of aircraft, China’s chance of invasion has been at an all-time high. Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first to ever command an army capable of a forced unification, may find the coming months more opportune than ever for an attempt at China-Taiwan unification. The same army that was forced to immediately back down from the U.S. in 1996 after launching missiles in water near the island is now in reach of sealing off the Taiwan Strait from all outside forces.
Indeed, the U.S. of 2021 proceeds with far greater diplomatic weariness than that of 1996—though the U.S. shows heavy support for Taiwan’s independence, the nation has stopped short of promising to defend the island from a Chinese invasion. Both nations have indicated interest in diplomatic negotiations: Biden and President Xi spoke during Obama’s 2012-2016 presidency, and the two have agreed to hold a virtual summit by the end of 2021. As both countries continue to provoke each other with counter-threats and sanctions, nonetheless, prospects of an unintentional war loom large.
By: Kevin Niu