Rising US support for Taiwan, seen in this week’s finalization of a US$62 billion F-16 fighter jet deal, is driving China to ramp up its military intimidation tactics against the self-governed island.
Last week, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) started “massive” and “unprecedented” military drills to “send a very strong signal to the secessionists in Taiwan and those who intend to disrupt peace and stability across the Straits,” according to China’s global news network CGTN.
The war games saw the PLA Eastern Theater Command simultaneously deploy multiple branches for “organized consecutive, realistic drills” across the far ends of the Taiwan Straits.
The Chinese state-backed Global Times described the large-scale exercises as a “clear and unprecedented deterrence toward secessionists of the island as well as the US, as the Trump administration has increased its links with the Taiwan secessionist authority, and the possibility of peaceful reunification is decreasing sharply.”
In another major escalation, Beijing this week also unveiled its newly-minted “Sky Thunder” (Tianlei 500) weapons system, which has been described as an air-to-surface missile and precision-guided munitions dispenser capable of carrying half a dozen types of submunitions for simultaneous multiple target attacks.
Analysts say China’s ultimate fear is US recognition of Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty, which if granted would almost certainly place the two superpowers on an armed collision course.
Notwithstanding legitimate concerns over US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy coherence and reliability, it’s hard to overlook that allies on the front line of the Sino-American Cold War are benefitting from increasing US military and diplomatic support.
Burgeoning strategic ties between the US and Taiwan should be seen as part of the Trump administration’s broader strategy of building an ‘arc of democracy’ and arming allies across the Indo-Pacific to counter an expansionist China.
Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a major policy statement on the South China Sea, which effectively backed the maritime claims of regional allies and partners against China’s wide-reaching assertions.
Most crucial was the unprecedented US support for the Philippines over the Beijing-claimed Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef, as well as a number of land features already under Manila’s control in the maritime area.
Last year, the US diplomatic chief also became the first top American official to explicitly clarify America’s willingness to come to the Philippines’ rescue in the event of a conflict with a hostile third party in the South China Sea, as per the two sides’ Mutual Defense Treaty.
Recent years have also seen expanded joint military activities as well as American Foreign Military Financing to regional allies such as the Philippines.
In his much-anticipated memoir, former US National Security Adviser John Bolton lamented President Donald Trump’s supposed lack of commitment to allies and obsession with striking a big deal with China.
“So much for American commitments and obligations to another democratic ally,” he complained, referring to an incident in Oval Office, where the US leader reportedly compared Taiwan to the “tip of one of his Sharpies” as opposed to China as the “Resolute desk” in the White House.
“I feared at that moment that Trump would simply say yes to everything Xi had laid out,” complained Bolton, citing a meeting between the Chinese and American leaders on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires.
“Trump began by telling Xi he missed him and then said that the most popular thing he had ever been involved with was making a trade deal with China, which would be a big plus for him politically,” he added, accusing the US president of “pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win” his re-election bid this year.
But the greatest beneficiary to date of Washington’s increasingly confrontational approach towards Beijing is actually Taiwan. Much to the chagrin of China, which considers Taiwan to be a renegade province, the island is relishing not only record armed deals with the US, but also unprecedented meetings with senior American officials.
In response, China is ramping up its military presence through large-scale wargames and naval deployments across the Taiwan Straits in a bid to intimidate Taipei’s leadership, discourage separatist sentiments on the island and deter the US and other like-minded powers which have stepped up engagement with Taiwan.
Under Trump, there have been many firsts in US-Taiwan relations, underscoring an undeclared ‘golden age’ in bilateral relations. In 2016, for instance, Trump became the first American leader to hold phone conversations with his Taiwanese counterpart, Tsai Ing-wen, since President Richard Nixon’s normalization of ties with Beijing in the early 1970s.
Over the succeeding years, a succession of top American officials has met their Taiwanese counterparts, including the pro-independence-leaning Tsai, who secured a decisive electoral victory earlier this year.
This year has marked a high point in the rapidly burgeoning strategic relationship, with US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar earlier this month making an unprecedented cabinet-level visit to Taipei to boost bilateral cooperation.
His visit, which saw the American health czar profusely praise Taiwan’s management of the Covid-19 crisis, coincided with the finalization of the $62 billion F-16 fighter jet deal, which has been identified as a supposed “red line” for China.
Led by Taiwan-friendly figures such as Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger, the White House has successfully pushed for the bipartisan Taipei Act to bolster Taiwan’s international standing, including its observer status in the World Health Organization, and as a counter to what Washington sees as China’s “bullying tactics.”
The Trump administration has also criticized Beijing’s efforts to force American companies to recognize Taiwan as part of China as “Orwellian nonsense.”
Although establishing American bases in Taiwan seems for now out of the question, the two sides are enhancing security cooperation through port calls and more surreptitious joint military activities, including through US training of Taiwanese soldiers.
“Foremost amongst my priorities is to establish a constructive security relationship [with the US] built on the clear understanding of our shared interests in the region,” Tsai said earlier this month.
She has also called for a major bilateral trade deal, which “recognizes the broader strategic implications such an agreement will undoubtedly have.”
As such, Taiwan’s ultimate goal seems to be gaining American, and by extension, broader international recognition of its de facto sovereignty, a move some surmise could be the spark that turns the new Cold war hot.