Following reports of a large incursion by Chinese warplanes and fighter jets, Taiwan believes China to be embarking on a show of force and intimidation. Taiwan’s defence ministry claims that eight Chinese bomber planes, capable of nuclear activity, four fighter jets, and one anti-submarine aircraft entered Taiwan’s self-declared air defence identification zone on Saturday the 23rd. The following day, 15 aircrafts were involved. On both occasions, Taiwan’s air force warned the unwanted visitors and deployed air defence missile systems to monitor the situation.
China and Taiwan have had separate governments since 1949, the end of the Chinese civil war. Ever since then, Beijing has tried to limit Taiwan’s international activities, and both have vied to extend their influence in the region. In the 1980s, hostile intentions and forceful diplomacy seemed to come to an end. China put forward a narrative about one country with two different systems, granting Taiwan significant autonomy in a reunification agreement. According to the Taiwanese, this never happened. In the 2000s, Taiwan elected Chen Shui-Bain as president running on “independent Taiwan.” Upon re-election in 2004, Beijing became increasingly concerned, quickly passing an “anti-secession law” that articulated China’s right to use “non-peaceful means” against Taiwan if it tried anything formally. Whether or not this deterred Taiwan from acting then, they certainly did not give on the idea as, two decades later, the Taiwanese government still leans towards official independence. Taiwan also has its constitution, democratic elections, and about 300,000 active troops in its armed forces. However, despite Taiwan’s long-standing separation and democratic government, it is only officially recognized by a few nations. Nevertheless, many Taiwanese people firmly believe that Taiwan is a separate nation and will continue to do so even if independence is never officially declared.
Some claim that this weekend’s activity is the beginning of China’s play to invade Taiwan. Indeed, many people think an invasion is imminent. Yet, while academics and scholars are quick to shut down the idea of immediate action, they have not ruled out the idea of a formal invasion of Taiwan. Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China Military analyst at Stanford University, says that the current situation is different from the past. She believes new characteristics need to be concerned, namely, President XI Jinping’s ego. Professor Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, echoes this sentiment, claiming that “Deng Xiaoping could not get Taiwan…Even Chairman Mao couldn’t get Taiwan. And if Xi Jinping gets Taiwan, (he) is [the greatest].”
Captain James E. Fanell, former director of the U.S. Naval Intelligence for the U.S. Pacific fleet, believes we are now in what he calls a “decade of concern” or, simply put, when the world gets more dangerous for Taiwan. He further elaborates on this point, outlining that the Chinese military has been increasing its capacity and capability for over 20 years, and its motive is Taiwan. Last October, China’s President XI Jinping lent some legitimacy to this claim. While visiting a People’s Liberation Army Marine Base in the Guangdong province, told the marines to prepare for war.
Another perspective on this weekend’s events is tied to the United States. Lo Chih-cheng, from Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, believes that China’s moves were an attempt to deter the new U.S. government from backing the island. Cindy Sui, BBC’s Taiwan correspondent, seems to agree, saying, “…Beijing wants to send a strong message early on in Joe Biden’s presidency that the Taiwan issue is dangerous and remind him not to play with fire by emboldening [them]….”
These beliefs are not far-fetched. The incursion occurred days after the inauguration of Joe Biden, who is anticipated to maintain strong pressure against China on a wide range of issues, including human rights, trade disputes, and foreign relationships. Although no specific policies addressing China and Taiwan have emerged, the U.S. state department seems to have reaffirmed its stance on the relationship after releasing a public statement urging Beijing to cease its pressure and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan. Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s de-facto ambassador to the US, also happened to be invited to Biden’s inauguration, further fueling a perception of renewed American support.
Even before Biden took power, this stance was well carved out. The Trump administration established close ties with Taipei, even sending senior officials to the territory against China’s wishes. During the final days of Trump’s power, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted long-standing restrictions on contacts between American and Taiwanese officials.
This story is not lost on China. Following the U.S.’s call for peaceful and meaningful resolution, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that United States’ involvement is “… not conducive to peace and stability in the region.” This response may not come as a surprise given the state of China and the United States’ diplomatic relations. As Rupert Wingfield-Hayes of BBC states, “If you add anger and suspicion over Covid-19 to the trade war, the Huawei investigation, the mutual closing of consulates and the ejection of journalists, relations between Washington and Beijing are at their lowest since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.”
Whatever perspective you take, China’s actions are cause for concern. This weekend’s air activity was not a coincidence nor a regular occurrence but a message and not one of peace. It is no longer sufficient to simply urge peaceful and meaningful negotiations. It is no longer adequate to simply be an encouraging spectator of Taiwan’s path towards independence.