Some analysts predicted Beijing would “test” the Biden administration, perhaps within three months of taking office. It turns out it only took a few days.
Last Saturday and Sunday Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone.
This isn’t the first time People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft have flown into the airspace between the south part of Taiwan and Taiwanese-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea. But the size and mix of the force are unusual.
Normally, such flights involve one to three reconnaissance or anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft. But on Saturday it was eight bombers, four fighters and one ASW plane. The next day the PLA sent a dozen fighters, two ASW planes and a reconnaissance plane. Taiwan’s air force scrambled in response on both days.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been increasingly using its air force and navy to probe and pressure Taiwan for years, but this is something more. It is fairly viewed as testing the new Biden administration.
The Americans (even the “new” team) might have been anticipating trouble. There have been concerns that the PRC might use the disruption caused by a change of administration in Washington as cover for moving against Taiwanese territory.
And in recent months stepped up Chinese military training in the region – including amphibious assault training – added to the concerns. So it’s unlikely the entry of the US Navy’s USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group into the South China Sea over the weekend was a coincidence.
Following Saturday’s PLA overflights, the US State Department issued a press release. That isn’t unusual, but the language was precise and blunt – intended to clearly state American support for Taiwan. This was a press release with a difference.
The statement expressed concern over Chinese behavior, urged the PRC to stop intimidating its neighbors, including Taiwan, and affirmed that the US will stand with its friends and allies. It also declared Washington will deepen ties with Taiwan and maintain its “rock solid commitment” to Taiwan – to include helping maintain Taiwan’s self-defense capability.
A retired US government official with long China experience offered insights on the latest events: “This suggests to me that there is, now … a very real crisis brewing in the Taiwan Strait that simply cannot wait for [newly appointed Secretary of State Antony] Blinken and company to get settled-in and hold their first staff meetings.”
He added that he was “somewhat heartened that the White House is taking Taiwan seriously, and is pledging continuity with important policies from the Trump administration.”
Further, “I can’t speak to the incoming Biden State Department’s grasp of nuance and the issuance of departmental “press releases” as authoritative statements of official policy,” he said, “but this can reasonably be assumed to be a warning to Beijing that the Biden Administration will continue the Trump Administration’s policies toward both Taiwan and China.”
“Normally, I’d assume the incoming Biden Administration hasn’t had time to give the State Department detailed oversight on specific Taiwan policies [but] on the other hand I don’t think the professional Foreign Service leadership at State would have issued this – what is, in effect, a full-throated endorsement of a signature policy from the hated Trump — without clear and explicit instructions from the White House.”
And there is more to the State Department message than meets the eye, the former diplomat added: “This press release’s invocation of the “Six Assurances” is a reminder to Beijing that the United States does not recognize the PRC’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.”
He was referring to assurance number five of the 1982 Reagan administration declaration, which says: “The United States has not changed its long-standing position on Taiwan’s sovereignty.” The Six Assurances have been the policy of Washington administrations since then and in 2016 were incorporated in a US House of Representatives resolution.
The bottom line
President Biden had signaled he was keen to dial down the temperature on US-China relations. But Beijing’s latest behavior towards Taiwan (and directed at Washington) suggests the Chinese aren’t eager to cool things down.
The former diplomat noted that he expects the Chinese “will heat up the crisis to see where Biden breaks. We shall see how much heat these [new people] can take.”
And with the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its escorts in the South China Sea, one can’t rule out the possibility the Chinese are prepared to “go kinetic” in a way seen on the India-China border in recent times.
But would the PRC really fight? One never knows but must at least consider the possibility. And from Beijing’s perspective, the time might be right. The PLA has never been stronger and would be operating close to home, where it has the advantage.
Even more, the US is suffering political and social turmoil – and its economy languishes from Covid-induced lockdowns. Meanwhile, a new administration always takes time to get oriented and has competing priorities.
Beijing is also familiar with many of President Biden’s new foreign policy team. A number of them worked in the Obama and even Clinton administrations and were pleasingly accommodating to the PRC. But the Biden administration’s initial response was the right one.
Anyhow, things are just getting started. China is dead serious about dominating the Indo-Pacific and taking Taiwan. Biden and his team will need to keep their wits about them and pay full attention.
As for the scheduled Trump impeachment trial in a couple weeks, a divided, distracted US just might sorely tempt Beijing to make a move.
And if it comes to that point, even well-worded State Department press releases won’t matter much. The Biden administration will instead have its mind fully concentrated warding off potential disaster – unless it gives Beijing what it wants, a disaster for US interests in its own right.
Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy. This article was first published by And Magazine.