The brazenness with which China’s air force scrambled a record number of aircraft across the Taiwan Straits in the last few days is in sharp contrast to the strategic calmness with which the government and the people in Taiwan responded. For, the Taiwanese knew the antics of China’s Communist Party for long—having engaged with them in pitched military and diplomatic battles for more than seven decades.
China sent 38 aircraft on its National Day on October 1, ramping them further to 39 aircraft the next day and crossing and violating the decades-long Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone—an informal buffer between the two. On October 4, in another record incursion, China sent 56 jets into Taiwan’s defence zone. In fact, in the last year, China’s air force flew more than 3,000 sorties as a pressure tactic on Taiwan to surrender.
China tried everything in its arsenal to cajole Taiwan into accepting reunification, in vain. It wrested Dongshan islands off Fujian province, based on which it conducts annual military exercises to send armed signals to Taiwan, which retaliates with its own hi-tech “Hanguang” [ironically named as Han glory exercises].
China surrounded the island of Taiwan with its first aircraft carrier Liaoning twice, dominated the crucial Bashi Channel and Miyako Straits and attempted submarine blockade, besides plans for overall invasion, amphibious landings, saturation strikes with over 2,000 short-range ballistic missiles, paralysing command and control mechanisms. None of these military threats paid off for China. Nor, strangely, the Taiwanese businesses pulled out of China and continue to feed into the rise of China.
Clearly, with a $15 trillion economy and over $250 billion in defence allocations by China, Taiwan is no match to this increasingly assertive Beijing. However, Taiwan has many advantages—crucial geographical location at the convergence of sea lanes in the Indo-Pacific waters, highly globalised IT industry, ability to deploy standoff weapons by a professional armed force and inflict heavy damage on strategic assets of China and intensive democratic experiment that drew support from the world at large.
For the leadership in China, its air force intrusions in Taiwan Straits are a way to cater to the rising domestic nationalist sentiments. At its previous Communist Party Congress in 2017, it had laid a “six Nos” policy, aimed at countering “anyone, any organization, any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China”. At the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party in July this year, President Xi Jinping alluded to “breaking heads” for anyone supporting Taiwan. With the next party congress due next year, factional politics are intensifying in China to find who can better resolve the cross-Straits issue.
By these air force intrusions, China may also be sending a signal of a spoiler to the national day celebrations in Taiwan on October 10—termed Double Ten, a day in 1911 when the Qing imperialists collapsed. While the younger generation in Taiwan today is averse to these political symbols from China, Double Ten is still being celebrated.
China is also sending a signal to the regional powers by such air intrusions in Taiwan Straits. Japan and Australia, with whom Taiwan has been expanding relations, are possible targets. Not too long ago, Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said in July this year that Japan would support, along with the US, Taiwan’s “survival” strategies.
Armed with the recent AUKUS (Australian-UK-US) nuclear submarine deal, Australia is a recent entrant to provide assistance in dire Straits. Penalised by Beijing for its vocal demand for a comprehensive investigation into the origins of coronavirus from Wuhan, Australia has seen substantial enthusiasm in regional security issues recently.
However, Beijing’s ire across the Straits has the element of testing how far can the United States go in helping a beleaguered Taiwan. It is only recently that China criticised the US for leaving Afghanistan like a “thief”, to cite China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying. More important is the parallel drawn about such withdrawal from Afghanistan as a lesson for Taiwan not to depend too much on the US. Beijing clearly is driving a psychological warfare campaign here against “independence forces” and in support of “nationalists” in Taiwan.
Yet another trigger for Beijing is the recent change in the name from Taipei Economic and Culture Centre to the Taiwan office, as in Lithuania recently, and the possible adoption of a similar formula by the US or other countries. Clearly, by sending air sorties across the Straits, China wants to pre-empt the US move towards any possible renaming of the Republic of China.
Moreover, China is also testing the recent Quad summit declaration of 24 September on support to democracies and maritime order in the East and South China Seas. Although the Quad leaders emphasised global maritime rules, the message has an implicit reference to the recent assertiveness of China in the region. With the Quad navies conducting exercises off Guam recently, Taiwan Straits’ scenarios must be one of the focal areas of such exercises.
The US criticised China’s air force intrusions and reaffirmed its commitment to Taiwan as “rock solid”. On October 3, the US stated that the Chinese move was “destabilising, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability”. It reiterated the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act provisions of supplying arms of defensive nature. While these may not deter Beijing in its current military actions in the Taiwan Straits, the costs as such for China are high with unpredictable outcomes.
India has been an onlooker in the current Taiwan Straits crisis, as with the two major crises before in 1958 and 1994. It expressed no view regarding the ongoing escalation even though New Delhi is more harassed by Beijing by the killing 20 Indian soldiers in June last year at Galwan. There is also a large-scale mobilisation of China in border areas with India.
It’s surprising then that New Delhi and Taipei have not come together and worked to address “common challenges” as Beijing declares frequently in its statements with Islamabad. In the 1962 border clashes, the Indian Army Chief’s suggestion to fight a two-front war fell on deaf ears in Taipei. New Delhi also now seems to be concerned more about the legal niceties rather than realpolitik considerations.
The writer is a professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.