Beijing has toned down the saber rattling after deploying a record number of military aircraft to harass Taiwan during China’s National Day vacation, but tensions remain high, with the language and logic for the drills remaining unaltered.
Experts believe that a direct battle is improbable at this time, but as the future of self-ruled Taiwan becomes more of a tinderbox, a misstep or miscalculation may spark a conflict when Chinese and American goals clash.
China wants to reclaim control of the strategically and symbolically significant island, while the US views Taiwan as part of a larger Chinese assault.
“The notion of a great power competition with China has pushed this back up the agenda,” said Henry Boyd, a defense expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the United Kingdom.
“The desire to stand up to China is such a powerful motivator that failing to do so would be regarded as a betrayal of American national interests.”
China claims Taiwan as its own, and Beijing’s political and military strategy revolves around its control of the island. On the weekend, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated that “national reunification must be accomplished, and will undoubtedly be realized” – a goal made more achievable by enormous gains in China’s military forces over the previous two decades.
As a result, the US has increased its assistance for Taiwan and shifted its attention to the Indo-Pacific area more generally. The United States’ support for Taiwan is “rock strong,” according to US State Department spokesman Ned Price, who added, “We have also made very clear that we are dedicated to strengthening our ties with Taiwan.”
Longstanding US policy has been to give Taiwan with diplomatic and military support but without expressly pledging to defend it against a Chinese assault.
China, irritated by what it regarded as growing American backing for Taiwan, chose to show its might with drills that included launching missiles into the waters 30 kilometers (20 miles) off Taiwan’s coast before of the country’s first popular presidential election in 1996.
The United States retaliated with a show of force of its own, dispatching two aircraft carrier groups to the region. China had no aircraft carriers and little weapons to threaten the American ships at the moment, so it backed down.
After being stung by the incident, China began a comprehensive military upgrade, and 25 years later, it has greatly strengthened missile defenses and outfitted or constructed its own aircraft carriers.
In a recent report to Congress, the US Defense Department stated that China’s armed forces were “a sizable but mostly archaic military” in 2000, but that it is now a rival, having already surpassed the US military in some areas, such as shipbuilding, to the point where it now has the world’s largest navy.
Although counting ships isn’t the best way to compare capabilities — the US Navy has 11 aircraft carriers compared to China’s two — in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, China would be able to deploy nearly all of its naval forces, as well as land-based anti-ship missiles, according to Boyd, a co-author of the IISS’s annual Military Balance assessment of global armed forces.
“China’s concept of operations in Taiwan is that if they can delay the United States’ presence in the fight, or limit the numbers that they can put into the fight because we’re able to hold their forward assets at some level of risk,” he said, “they can beat the Taiwanese before the Americans show up in sufficient force to do something about it.”
Taiwan’s goal is the inverse: delaying China long enough for the United States and its allies to arrive in force. It possesses substantial armed forces and the benefit of fighting on its own soil. Asymmetric options, such as missile assaults against mainland China’s ammo or fuel dumps, are also mentioned in a recent policy paper.
According to Taiwan’s defense department’s assessment of China’s capabilities, which was presented to parliament in August and obtained by The Associated Press, China already has the capability to seal Taiwan’s ports and airports, but lacks the transportation and logistical support for large-scale joint landing operations — though this is improving by the day.
Last week, US Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro designated China as the “most critical” long-term issue in a new strategic guidance strategy.
“For the first time in at least a generation, we have a strategic opponent with naval capabilities comparable to ours, and who intends to aggressively deploy its forces to threaten US values, relationships, and prosperity,” the report stated.
China dispatched a record 149 military aircraft southwest of Taiwan in strike group formations over the National Day weekend at the start of the month, in international airspace but approaching the island’s buffer zone, forcing Taiwan to scramble its defenses.
China said on Monday that it had conducted beach landing and assault maneuvers in the mainland region directly across from Taiwan.
The mainland government’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokeswoman, Ma Xiaoguang, defended the measures as essential, claiming they were triggered by “Taiwan independence forces” working with “foreign forces” on Wednesday.
“Through this salami slicing, the Chinese are attempting to modify the status quo and normalize the situation,” said Hoo Tiang Boon, coordinator of the China program at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “They realize Taiwan can’t do anything about it, and the risk is that miscalculations or disasters are possible.”
In 1949, after a civil war, Taiwan and China separated, with Chiang Kai-Nationalists shek’s fleeing to the island while Mao Zedong’s Communists surged to power.
Beijing stated in a 2019 military white paper that it supports “peaceful reunification of the nation” — a term echoed by Xi over the weekend — but is clear about its objectives.
The paper states, “China must and will be reunited.” “We make no commitment to refrain from using force and maintain the right to take any necessary actions.”
In the meantime, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has been arguing for more international assistance, saying in the most current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that “if Taiwan fell, the implications would be disastrous for regional peace and the democratic alliance system.”
She stated, “A failure to preserve Taiwan would be devastating not only for the Taiwanese.” “It would destabilize a security architecture that has enabled for seven decades of peace and unprecedented economic progress in the area.”
According to US law, it must help Taiwan retain a defense capacity and consider threats to the island as a “grave concern.”
As part of a professed commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” Washington has confirmed that U.S. special troops are training on the island. It has also increased multinational drills in the region. An drill involving 17 ships from six navies — the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada, and New Zealand — took place earlier this month near the Japanese island of Okinawa.
The so-called Quad nations — the United States, Australia, India, and Japan — wrapped their joint drills in the Bay of Bengal on Thursday, demonstrating their commitment to defend “basic principles such as democracy and the rule of law,” according to Japan’s Defense Ministry.
Last month, Washington and Britain inked an agreement to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, which China claimed would “seriously harm regional peace and security.”
“The Americans are attempting to bring in allies on a single front,” Hoo explained. “The Taiwan problem is becoming increasingly internationalized.”
Right now, neither side’s military forces feel completely equipped for a fight over Taiwan, but that may not be the case in the end, according to Boyd.
He stated, “It’s not going to be up to the military.” “It will be up to the politicians to decide.”