BANGKOK (AP) – By sending a record number of warplanes to pursue Taiwan on the occasion of China’s national holiday, Beijing has softened the saber rattling, but tensions remain high and the rhetoric and rationale for the exercise have not changed.
Experts agree that direct conflict is now unlikely, but as the future of self-governing Taiwan increasingly turns into a powder keg, failure or miscalculation could lead to confrontation as China’s and America’s ambitions diverge.
China is seeking to regain control of the strategically and symbolically important island, and the United States views Taiwan in the context of broader challenges from China.
“From the US perspective, the concept of great power rivalry with China has pushed this issue on the agenda,” said Henry Boyd, a British defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“The need to confront China is a strong enough motivating factor, so abandoning this fight will also be seen as a betrayal of American national interests.”
China claims that Taiwan is its property and control of the island is a key component of Beijing’s political and military thinking. Leader Xi Jinping over the weekend reiterated that “the reunification of the nation must be and will definitely be accomplished,” a goal made more realistic by the massive improvements in China’s military over the past two decades.
In response, the United States increased its support for Taiwan and, more broadly, shifted its focus to the Indo-Pacific region. US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday stressed that US support for Taiwan is “rock solid,” saying that “we have also made very clear our commitment to deepening our ties with Taiwan.”
Washington’s longstanding policy has been to provide political and military support to Taiwan without making explicit promises to protect it from Chinese attack.
Both sides arguably came closest to strikes in 1996, when China, irritated by what it saw as growing American support for Taiwan, decided to flex its muscles with exercises that included launching missiles into waters about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Taiwan. coastline ahead of Taiwan’s first popular presidential election.
The United States responded with a show of force by sending two carrier groups to the region. At the time, China had no aircraft carriers and little means to threaten American ships and retreated.
Offended by this episode, China embarked on a massive retooling of its armed forces, and 25 years later, it vastly improved its missile defense system, which could easily retaliate, and equipped or built its own aircraft carriers.
In a recent report by the US Department of Defense to Congress, it was noted that in 2000 it ranked China’s military as “a sizable but largely obsolete military,” but today it is a competitor, already surpassing the US military in some areas, including shipbuilding. where the world’s largest fleet is now located.
Counting ships is not the best way to compare capabilities – for example, the US Navy has 11 aircraft carriers against two Chinese ones – but in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, China will be able to deploy almost all of its naval forces, and also has land-based anti-ship missiles to add to the combat, said Boyd, co-author of the IISS’s annual global military balance sheet.
“The concept of China’s operations against Taiwan is that if they can delay the US presence in combat or limit the numbers they can deploy in combat because we can hold their advanced assets at a certain level of risk, they can defeat the Taiwanese before how will the Americans be strong enough to do something about it, ”he said.
Taiwan’s own strategy is a mirror image – delaying China long enough for the United States and its allies to show strength. It has significant military forces and the advantage of fighting on its territory. A recent policy paper also notes the need for asymmetric measures, which could include things like missile strikes on munitions in mainland China or fuel dumps.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense’s assessment of China’s capabilities, presented to parliament in August and obtained by the Associated Press, said China already has the ability to close Taiwanese ports and airports, but currently lacks the transport and logistics support for large-scale joint amphibious operations – although improving with each in the afternoon.
In a new strategic leadership policy last week, US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro called China “the biggest” long-term challenge.
“For the first time in at least a generation, we have a strategic rival with naval capabilities that rival ours and that seeks to aggressively use its forces to challenge American principles, partnership and prosperity,” says in the document.
China on National Day weekend earlier this month sent a record 149 warplanes southwest of Taiwan with strike teams – in international airspace but in the island’s buffer zone, forcing Taiwan to take up defense.
On Monday, China announced it had conducted a landings and assault exercises in the mainland province directly opposite Taiwan.
Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the mainland government’s Taiwan Affairs Office, justified his actions by necessity, saying on Wednesday that they were provoked by “Taiwan independence forces” colluding with “outside forces.”
“At every step, the Chinese are trying to change the status quo and normalize the situation by slicing salami,” said Hu Tiang Bun, China Program Coordinator, School of International Studies. S. Rajaratnam in Singapore. “They know there is nothing Taiwan can do about it, and the danger is that the potential for miscalculation or failure does exist.”
Taiwan and China split in 1949 in a civil war, when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists fled to the island when Mao Zedong’s communists came to power.
In a 2019 defense document, Beijing said it favors “the peaceful reunification of the country” – which Xi Jinping reiterated over the weekend – but also clearly states its goals.
“China must and will be reunited,” the document says. “We do not promise to abandon the use of force and reserve the opportunity to take all necessary measures.”
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ying-wen advocates broader global support, writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that “If Taiwan falls, the consequences will be catastrophic for regional peace and the system of democratic alliances. … “
“Failure to protect Taiwan will be a disaster not only for Taiwanese,” she wrote. “It would overturn the security architecture that has ensured peace and exceptional economic development in the region for seven decades.”
US law requires Taiwan to help Taiwan maintain its defenses and treat threats to the island as “a matter of serious concern.”
Washington recently acknowledged that US Special Forces is on the island as training and is intensifying multinational maneuvers in the region as part of its stated commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” These included a drill involving 17 ships from six navies – the United States, Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand off the Japanese island of Okinawa earlier this month.
The so-called “Quartet” group of countries – the US, Australia, India and Japan – on Thursday concluded joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal, which, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry, have demonstrated their determination to uphold “fundamental values such as democracy and state power.” law.”
Washington also signed an agreement with Britain last month to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, which China said would “seriously harm regional peace and stability.”
“The Americans are trying to unite their allies in a united front,” Hu said. “The Taiwan question is becoming more and more internationalized.”
Right now, neither side’s militaries feel fully prepared for a conflict over Taiwan, but in the end it may not be their solution, Boyd said.
“It won’t be up to the military,” he said. “It will depend on the politicians.”
Associated Press contributors Matthew Lee in Washington and Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.