Two recent visits by high ranking US officials to Taiwan has irked China and created a war-like situation.US Health Secretary Alex Azar was in Taiwan to congratulate the authorities on their exemplary performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. He signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on health cooperation and visited a mask making factory which had donated protective gear to the US. The second US official, Keith Krach the Under secretary of State for Economic Affairs, arrived Taiwan to attend the memorial service and pay homage to the former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui who passed away on 30 July 2020.
Both visits are highly significant given that there has been no such high level visit ever since Washington cut formal ties with Taiwan in 1979. Also, these visits were possible only because of the signing of the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act. Notably, these visits come against the backdrop of deepening mistrust and deteriorating relations between China and the US.
It is not surprising that Beijing responded by military drill for two consecutive days across the Taiwan Straits to demonstrate its displeasure both to Taiwan and the US. Last week, as many as 46 PLA Air Force planes (multirole fighters, bombers and anti-submarine warfare aircraft) flew into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) from all four sides. This is not the first time that China has violated Taiwan’s airspace and has been gradually increasing military pressure on Taiwan. It also held another significant exercise inside Taiwan’s Air Defence buffer zone. Although the Chinese side had announced military drills, it is timing of these drills which is critical.
Earlier, in August, just before Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and Under Secretary Azar were to meet, Beijing sent two fighter jets towards the Island. Thereafter, as Krach was about to reach Taiwan, two Chinese Y-8 Anti-Submarine Aircraft flew into Taiwan’s ADIZ and Taiwanese fighter jets had no option but to scramble and intercept the Chinese aircraft.
It is to be noted that Taiwan’s “interception zone” extends 12 nautical miles from Taiwan’s coast to the median line and is the unofficial line dividing China and Taiwan; however, China has refuted the median line and the Chinese Foreign ministry said that there is no such line because “Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese Territory”. Taiwan foreign Minister Joseph Wu condemned the claim and stated that Chinese comment “undermines the status quo in the Taiwan Strait” and urged China to “return to the civilized international standards”.
Based on the above mentioned violation of Taiwanese ADIZ, the Taiwanese Defence Ministry has released a picture that gives detailed account of the PLA Air force drills; two bombers and several fighters flew into the south-western part of Taiwan’s air defence zone. Eight PLA fighter planes crossed Taiwan’s side of the median line near Taoyuan and Hsinchu. These are major cities in Taiwan and are home to sophisticated military installations. Hsinchu is also home to high-tech industries such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and Taoyuan has an international airport. The Taiwanese President’s office said, “China’s behaviour was not conducive to improving their international image.”
According to analysts, the drill was a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the take-over of Taiwan. Through these military exercises, China has tried to probe into the Taiwanese air defence capability, preparedness, and tested its reaction time. It was also possible to determine Taiwanese Air force emergency response model, combat posture and locations of Taiwan’s air defence system along the Strait. This will help the PLA Air Force to sharpen its strategy and improve its tactics to enhance combat outcomes against Taiwan. China has defended the drills and announced that these were meant to “protect its sovereignty and integrity”.
Taiwanese President Tsai ing-wen has criticized Chinese maneuvers and stated that “ these activities are no help to China’s international image, and what’s more have put Taiwan’s people even more on their guard, understanding even better the true nature of the Chinese Communist regime”. She stressed that China is a threat to the entire region.
In recent months, Chinese aircraft and warships have repeatedly intimidated Taiwan’s and breeched into airspace and territorial waters. It is fair to argue that any miscalculation in Cross-Strait relations can cause serious conflict. The recent events have only exasperated the ongoing tensions between US and China and made Taiwan a flashpoint.
While the military tensions are high, the bilateral trade between China and Taiwan seems to be flourishing. According to the General Administration of Customs, Cross-Strait trade in August was USD 158.93 billion. It increased by 10 per cent year-on-year. Taiwan has a trade surplus of USD 83.46 billion. Besides, both sides held their first Cross-strait meeting since the COVID-19 outbreak.
At another level, China is using its economic and political clout to influence countries and as many as eight countries (Kiribati, Solomon Islands, El Salvador, Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Panama, Gambia and Sao Tome and Principle) have been pressurized to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in the last four years.
Dr Teshu Singh is Research Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.