Is China setting the stage for a potential invasion of Taiwan, and if so would the US respond to defend the self-governing island?
Ahead of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) large-scale military drills scheduled for this summer, concerns are rising China may take aggressive action towards Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province that must eventually be incorporated with the mainland.
For the first time, China is reportedly set to dispatch both of its aircraft carriers, the refurbished Soviet-built Liaoning and indigenously-built Shandong, for months-long war games across the Yellow Sea and down to the South China Sea.
Some experts speculate that such military maneuvers could be a prelude for broader, aggressive actions against Taiwan, which is currently under the independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen administration.
In her speech this week (May 27), Tsai emphasized the need for development of asymmetric warfare capabilities against China, including the development of advanced ballistic missile defense systems.
The ongoing pandemic, which has pressed many neighbors and rivals to focus on domestic crises, has coincided with a resurgence in Chinese maritime assertiveness.
Since March, the US Pentagon has claimed “at least nine” incidents of “unsafe” encounters involving Chinese warships and American naval vessels on routine operations in the contested South China Sea.
Malaysia, meanwhile, has been fretting over Chinese harassment of its oil exploration activities in the southern portions of the South China Sea.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines, which have rival claims in the area, have also reported aggressive Chinese action against their vessels roaming the disputed areas.
In response to US criticism of China’s perceived strategic opportunism amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has claimed, “There is nothing to support the claim that China is using Covid-19 to expand its presence in the South China Sea.”
“Their [American] ill-intentions and despicable moves are meant to sow discord between China and ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asia Nations] countries and undermine the hard-won stability in the region,” China’s chief diplomat said on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.
Taiwan is particularly vulnerable to growing Chinese naval assertiveness. There is speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping has identified the year 2020 as a decisive moment to “reunify” Greater China, namely through the reintegration of Taiwan under Beijing’s rule.
In 2018, Deng Yuwen of China’s Charhar Institute warned of the increasing “pace of Beijing’s plan to take back the island, probably in 2020.”
A year later, during his 2019 New Year Eve’s address, Xi declared that the island nation “must and will be” reunited with the mainland as part of a much-touted “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. That same month saw the Chinese leader call upon the PLA to prepare for a “comprehensive military struggle from a new starting point.”
A few months later, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe warned the PLA will “make no promise to renounce the use of force” vis-à-vis Taiwan amid growing concerns over closer strategic cooperation between Taipei and Washington.
In his annual report released last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reiterated his country’s resolute rejection of any “separatist” activities, including pro-independence Taiwanese elements, amid a 6.6% defense budget increase despite facing a sharp economic downturn.
Much to China’s dismay, the Trump administration has stepped up its diplomatic exchanges with Taiwanese leaders, expanded security cooperation, and recently cleared multi-billion-dollar arms deals with the island nation, including an $8 billion sale of new F-16 fighter jets to the self-governed island.
In a demonstration of support to its regional allies, notably following the high-profile visit of Taiwanese Vice President-elect William Lai to Washington, the Pentagon has conducted at least two freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Straits in April.
Lieutenant Anthony Junco, a spokesman of the US Seventh Fleet, confirmed that the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducted both operations as part of upholding peace and freedom of navigation in international waters in accordance to international law.
“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” he said.
Growing US-Taiwan public health policy collaboration has provided a springboard for Washington to push for greater global recognition of the island nation. Incensed by Taiwan’s increasingly active global role, Beijing has apparently responded by expanding military drills in the Taiwan Straits.
Since last March, the PLA conducted a first-ever night aerial mission; an armada of Chinese warships, led by aircraft carrier Liaoning, have passed close to Miyako Strait near maritime borders with Taiwan; and, most recently, held a 36-hour endurance exercise in the Taiwan Straits, signaling preparations for potential military contingencies.
Earlier this month, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that the PLA’s Southern Command is set to stage a simulated invasion of Taiwanese-held Pratas Islands in northern portions of the South China Sea.
Taiwan has long controlled the disputed islands spanning 353,668 acres which have been converted into a national marine park and consist several coral reefs, banks and one rocky island located about 444 kilometers from Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s main port city.
China’s war games are expected to take place in August and will reportedly involve large military maneuvers on an “unpreceded scale” on the southern island of Hainan, involving amphibious ships, helicopters, hovercrafts and a significant number of PLA marines.
In an interview with the state-affiliated Global Times, Chinese expert Song Zhongping warned of the possibility that Taiwan will grant America access to the disputed islands, which could be used “to deploy intelligence-gathering or anti-submarine equipment, this could be dangerous to the PLA.”
“[T]he PLA will need to prepare for a military struggle, including holding joint exercises, to warn Taiwan secessionists not to cross the red line,” warned the Chinese expert.
“Landing missions have been regular training subjects of the PLA. Island takeover trainings like these are literally aimed at islands, like the Dongsha Islands, Penghu Islands and the larger island, namely Taiwan Island,” Song wrote. “If Taiwan secessionists insist on secession, military exercises can turn into action any time.”