On Monday last week, Minister of National Defense Feng Shih-kuan (馮世寬), a retired air force general, told the Legislative Yuan that Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force aircraft flew around Taiwan’s airspace.
US President Barack Obama and international media outlets have insinuated that US president-elect Donald Trump’s sudden and surprising pronouncements on policy regarding Taiwan are to blame for raising tension with China.
More advanced thinking and management of communications would be helpful if Trump continues to implement changes in how the US conducts policies.
Nonetheless, it is not helpful to say that China’s provocations are “responses” to Trump. Since before the US election, there has been concern that China would provoke tension and test the US during the transition. That concern is heightened in the hand over from laid-back Obama to the less experienced Trump. China has also provoked tensions in the East and South China seas.
China’s provocations of Taiwan, the Philippines, the US and others should not be seen as new, surprising, or as responses, but rather as part of its militarization of aggressive claims in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. China has also conducted political warfare using the media.
What is somewhat stunning is the series of quick developments involving the US elections and Trump’s approach to dealing with Taiwan.
On Dec. 2, Trump took a telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who, like other world leaders, sought to congratulate the president-elect on his victory at the polls, but added that she remains cautious about supporting the “status quo.”
On Dec. 11, Trump told Fox News Sunday: “I fully understand the ‘one China’ policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘one China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
The mainstream, bipartisan US view sees Taiwan not as leverage, but as an economic and security partner and a beacon of democracy in the world.
However, even before the Tsai-Trump telephone call, on Nov. 25, PLA Air Force military aircraft flew around Taiwan just outside its air defense identification zone for the first time.
Significantly, Deputy Minister of National Defense Lee Hsi-ming (李喜明), who is also an admiral, publicly discussed China’s provocation.
Lee also told the Legislative Yuan that Taiwan and Japan scrambled fighters to respond to the Chinese aircraft.
Lee did a real service for Taiwan’s strategic communication by saying that Taiwan is well aware of China’s threats, by reminding the public about those ongoing threats, and by boosting confidence in Taiwan’s will to fight.
Then, for the second time, on Dec. 10, the PLA Air Force flew four aircraft around Taiwan close to its air defense identification zone, but remained in international airspace. The flights appeared to be part of a long-distance training program that included more military aircraft flying over the Miyako Strait between Japan and Taiwan, and over the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.
In addition, before this eventful month, the author heard a warning in the summer, from a professor visiting from Beijing who has ties to Chinese officials, that China contemplated options to pressure Taiwan.
Such options include military pressure around Taiwan up to its 12 nautical mile (22.2km) territorial sea or airspace. In this view, the PLA would copy the US military’s reconnaissance operations against China and use them against Taiwan. The PLA appears to be operationalizing this threat in the air and can be expected to follow with provocations at sea.
In addition, when China suddenly announced its “air defense identification zone for the East China Sea” on Nov. 23, 2013, that provocation showed little regard for the “status quo,” existing zones of other nations, or even security in the air. China’s announced zone overlapped with those of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
Against this backdrop, it was not helpful for Obama, in probably his last news conference at the White House on Friday last week, to parrot China’s propaganda on being compelled to “respond” with threats to Taiwan.
Obama seemed to be warning his successor when he said: “For China the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of ‘one China’ is at the heart of their conception as a nation and so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences are.”
Obama added that the question of Taiwan “goes to the core of how [leaders in China] see themselves and their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant.”
Indeed, Obama himself has changed policy, weakening the US’ posture. It would have been helpful if he notified the US Congress by last month or early this month of several pending arms sales to Taiwan in compliance with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
It would be helpful if Obama explained to China the counter-narrative that even the US’ “one China” policy consists of an evolution in how Washington conducts its policy, which is not bound by Beijing’s dictates to other countries, and that US policy is premised on the basis that Taiwan’s status is unsettled.
Actually, US policy is focused on the process, not outcome, with a resolution on the question of Taiwan that is peaceful and has the assent of Taiwanese. It would be helpful if Obama pointed to the crux of the problem as Beijing’s belligerence and lack of flexibility with Taipei. It would be helpful for the president to offer candid observations as then-US Army chief of staff General George Casey did the during a visit to Beijing in 2009.
Meeting with PLA generals who complained only about US “obstacles” to military-to-military ties — including arms sales to Taiwan — Casey countered that it was difficult to engage with the PLA when its constant starting point was to blame the US for problems.
During this critical transition period, leaders in Taipei, Manila, Seoul, Tokyo, Washington, and other capitals should remember the words of Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the Pacific Command.
In a speech in Australia, a US ally on Dec. 14, Harris stressed his formula for deterrence: Capability x Resolve x Signaling = Deterrence.
“All three elements, capability, resolve, and signaling, must be present for deterrence to exist. And because we’re doing multiplication, not addition, if any of these elements are missing, you’ve got zero deterrence,” Harris said.
Taiwan’s role is also critical to ensure capability, resolve, and signaling for effective deterrence. It is encouraging that the Ministry of National Defense is stepping up strategic communication, especially with Lee’s warnings.
In countering China’s coercion or conflict, Taiwan’s civilian and military leadership needs to strengthen strategic communication, conveying domestically and internationally that Taiwan’s military and people have the will and capability to defend their homeland.
Taiwan might be reminded of former British prime minister Winston Churchill’s speech that “we shall fight on the beaches.”
On June 4, 1940, Churchill declared with full confidence that “we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Shirley Kan is a retired specialist in Asian security affairs who worked for the US Congress at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service and is a member of non-profit Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory board.
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