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London — As Nato and G7 leaders met to discuss a tougher line on China this week, Taiwan — swiftly emerging as the most serious likely flashpoint — was entering a new phase of its perfect storm with the mainland.
Taiwan’s defence minister said on Tuesday that 26 Chinese warplanes entered the Air Defence Identification Zone claimed by Taiwan, one more than the previous largest incursion in April. The aircraft — including jet interceptors, maritime patrol aircraft and nuclear-capable bombers — flew around the south of Taiwan and near a much smaller disputed island.
Beijing’s military rhetoric and actions towards Taiwan — which China argues is a rogue province that must be reintegrated with the mainland — have ramped up sharply this year, particularly air and maritime incursions. This has prompted a similar uptick in supportive moves from the US , including sending destroyers through waters between Taiwan and China.
Tensions are clearly rising — from the USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group just arriving in the South China Sea to Chinese dredgers encroaching into Taiwanese waters. Both Beijing and Washington are looking to unambiguously demonstrate their seriousness in planning for any future conflict, neither really knowing how genuine or committed the other truly is.
It is a dynamic already worrying US and Western tech manufacturers — Taiwan is one of the world’s largest producers, and a conflict there could devastate an industry already struggling with capacity issues.
For decades, the US has been deliberately ambiguous and vague in its expressions of support for Taiwan, an approach first formally adopted with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. The last year of the Trump administration and first of Biden, however, have seen a much more assertive line — with pressure from Congress to go much further.
Speaking at a confirmation hearing on Tuesday, incoming top US Asia diplomat Daniel Kritenbrink said Washington should increase support for Taiwan in every area of relations. Beijing was already furious over a visit by a Congressional delegation to Taiwan earlier this month, transported in a US military cargo plane, and this appears to signal more activity.
Other future steps could include a Taiwan-US trade pact, along with efforts to integrate Taiwan more closely with other US allies in the region such as Japan and Australia. None of these nations, however, has yet to truly decide what to do should China move against Taiwan.
At both the G7 and a meeting of ASEAN defence ministers on Wednesday, the US and its allies called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. That wording, however, raises as many questions as it answers.
It’s a dangerous situation — one now exacerbated by a spike in cases of Covid-19.
Only 3% of Taiwan’s population have so far received a vaccine. Beijing is likely to want to capitalise on new fears over rising cases — already offering to give any Taiwan resident a free Chinese vaccine should they fly to the mainland. Taiwanese authorities are encouraging people not to take up the offer, warning that they would have to quarantine on their return to the island.
Taiwan has also refused to take vaccines from Fosun — the Chinese-based manufacturer of Pfizer’s shot. Analysts say that while Taiwanese worries over the safety and efficacy of Chinese vaccines are widely shared, turning down the Pfizer-designed Fosun vaccine was primarily a political decision to avoid risking dependence on Beijing.
In its place, Japan and the US flew in shipments of the non-Chinese made AstraZeneca vaccine, further infuriating Beijing. Taiwan is also pushing its own vaccine manufacturing plans, though delays have hit the popularity of President Tsai Ing-wen.
As much as tackling Covid-19, however, the confrontation over vaccines is a proxy for something much larger — the posturing between Beijing and Taiwan’s Western and Asian allies over what would happen were China to invade.
Earlier this month, China staged what it described as “amphibious landing drills” followed by tests of its DF-26 “carrier-killer” missiles. The message to Washington was clear — in the event of an invasion, Beijing believes it could sink US aircraft carriers if they intervene and is betting on that threat to make the Pentagon keep them far away.
The Reagan battle group entering the region this week, of course, is designed to signal just the opposite — that the US intends to keep its forces nearby, and that should China ever try to grab Taiwan, it will find itself in a shooting war with the US military.
Such a conflict would raise immediate fears of a nuclear confrontation. Even without that, however, it could be hugely bloody, featuring urban warfare in Taiwan and considerable naval losses on all sides. The US and China may not know which side would win, but both have enough missiles and other weaponry to devastate each other’s forces.
Beijing isn’t backing down either. The Chinese Communist Party-owned tabloid Global Times claimed China now had “overwhelming” military advantage over Taiwan itself, as well as the ability to block US military intervention. “The mainland already has the dominant power to decide how and the pace to resolve the Taiwan question.”
For years, Western and Chinese analysts have worried that confrontation over Taiwan could spark war in the coming decades. Now, it appears that scenario may be rather closer.• Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think-tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour party.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.