Has the Covid-19 pandemic created the strategic conditions for a US-China clash over Taiwan?
China has recently provocatively deployed fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers near the self-governing island Beijing considers a renegade province that must be reincorporated to the mainland.
On April 23, Taipei announced that China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier and five accompanying warships sailed through the channel between Taiwan and the Philippines in an overt show of force.
Tit for tat, US warships have sailed twice this month through the narrow Taiwan Strait between the island and mainland, including in recent days the USS Barry guided missile destroyer.
The US Seventh Fleet’s spokesman, Lieutenant Anthony Junco, said the deployment was a “routine” transit and that it’s presence in the waterway demonstrated America’s “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to news reports.
Those deployments and pronouncements have no doubt bid to dispel notions that a strategic vacuum has opened in the South China Sea and near the Taiwan Strait as the US grapples with a Covid-19 outbreak that has taken nearly 60,000 American lives.
They also come amid heightened US-China tensions, seen in American opposition to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, support for a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, unresolved trade disputes, and now with each side blaming the other for starting the pandemic.
While the US has no legal obligation to intervene militarily if China invaded Taiwan, security analysts doubt that Washington would stand by idly if Beijing launched such an assault, even as US President Donald Trump has paid less attention to security issues in the Asia-Pacific than his predecessor Barack Obama.
“Trump has done a lot to alienate regional allies like leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, shaking down South Korea and Japan over defense costs and so on, but has for whatever reason done more to support Taipei than any other US president since derecognition in 1979,” said a US-based security analyst.
In that year, Washington established diplomatic relations with Beijing while ties with Taipei became more informal. But Taiwan remains an old Cold War era ally that the US cannot afford to abandon for broad and wide strategic reasons.
The self-governing island remains a crucial link in the string of military partners that the US has assembled around China’s eastern flank, along with Japan, South Korea and, until recently, the Philippines. As such, the US has provided Taiwan with vital military material over the years for its self-defense.
Still, analysts say it’s not clear if Taiwan would be able to withstand a Chinese invasion attempt. In the past, Taiwan’s defenses were more modern and sophisticated than China’s. But a military build-up in China means that the strategic balance may have tilted in Beijing’s favor.
Earlier this month, China launched another 40,000-ton amphibious assault vessel, the second of its 075 class and seemingly built to bust Taiwan’s shoreline defenses. Taiwan has no ships in its navy that compare to those two massive troop carriers.
Nor is it clear how much support Taipei could realistically expect from the US in light of Trump’s “America First” policies and an apparently suddenly weakened US defense posture in the region. That said, Taiwan boasts US-supplied top-of-the-line defense equipment to point back in Beijing’s direction.
In September 2018, the US approved a US$330 million arms sale to Taiwan to improve its defense capabilities. The deal covered parts for Taiwan’s fleet of F-16s, C-130s and F-5 military aircraft, and related logistics and program support elements.
With China hawks like US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mike Esper in Trump’s administration, such material support for Taiwan is likely to continue. At the same time, it seems unlikely that China would risk a showdown with the US in the Taiwan Strait at this delicate moment.
China watchers believe that Chinese president Xi Jinping has set an undeclared deadline of this year for a final decision on whether to invade Taiwan, but opinions vary as to whether that is truly his intent.
In a January 2019 speech, Xi said that Taiwan would have to abide by the one country-two system formula now governing Hong Kong. He said he wanted a peaceful “reunification” but also reserved the right to use force.
It’s unclear how much his calculus may have changed in light of the open support Taiwan has provided Hong Kong’s anti-Beijing, pro-democracy demonstrators, including through the provision of gas masks and providing sanctuary to activists on the run from possible arrest.
Some observers speculate that next year, the centenary of the ruling Communist Party of China’s (CCP) founding, will be a crucial year for Taiwan. Other analysts believe that is too soon, and that 2049—the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China—is a more likely date.
It unlikely that Xi will still be in power at that time, which could mean China will move much sooner. Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), unified the country and then had his armies invade and annex Tibet.
China’s second strongman, Deng Xiaoping, negotiated the return to China of British-run Hong Kong and Portuguese-held Macau.
Xi, who is known to see himself as the third of modern China’s great leaders, would likely want to oversee the final “reunification” of all Chinese territories, namely Taiwan, during his tenure.
Much, of course, depends on how the Covid-19 crisis plays out.
Some analysts argue that Xi could seek to stir nationalistic fires and launch a foreign military adventure against Taiwan to distract from the country’s sudden economic problems and attendant rising unemployment.
Meanwhile, 40,000 American troops and 20,000 National Guard members are currently bogged down in the Covid-19 fight at home.
That could have influenced the abrupt and unexplained sudden ending on April 16 of the Pentagon’s B-52-powered Continuous Bomber Presence Mission in Guam, a US-controlled island from where the US maintain capabilities to project power into the Pacific.
The bombers are now permanently stationed on the US mainland, while they will continue to operate in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But that is not the same thing as stationing them on Guam, defense analyst Joseph Trevithick argued in an article on the strategic website Drive.
He argued the bombers on Guam were “a cornerstone of US power projection and deterrence capabilities to the region…it is undeniable that the US military’s force posture in the Pacific region has just undergone a major shift.”
Significantly, Taiwan itself has not been weakened by the virus crisis. With only 428 Covid-19 cases and six deaths among a population of 23 million, Taiwan has instead won international plaudits for its deft handling and containment of the lethal disease.
Indeed, Taiwan is now competing head-to-head with China’s “face mask diplomacy” by sending protective medical equipment to European Union countries.
EU commissioner Ursula von der Leyen recently issued a statement thanking Taiwan for its donation including 5.6 million face masks, saying the bloc appreciated the “gesture of solidarity.”
Taiwan has also sent masks and medical equipment to the US and smaller island nations in the Pacific and the West Indies which maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan rather than China.
In March, Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s most prominent research institution, held a video conference with counterparts in the US, EU and Canada to discuss the research and development of Covid-19 test kits, vaccines and reagents.
That’s all apparently stirred Beijing’s ire. At a press conference earlier this month in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian lashed out against Taiwan.
“Since the outbreak of Covid-19 … authorities in Taiwan have been doing all they can to make reckless political maneuvers and hype up Taiwan’s participation in the WHO and the World Health Assembly,” said Zhao, referring to the World Health Organization.
“Their real intention is to seek independence under the pretext of the pandemic. We are firmly opposed to that. Their scheme will never succeed,” he said, without elaborating.
But where Taiwan is certainly succeeding is in portraying itself as a responsible, democratic actor in time of global crisis, a sharp contrast to authoritarian China’s sometimes opaque and often contradictory accounts of the virus crisis and China’s role in its origin and spread.