Then-US ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft originally planned to visit Taiwan on Jan. 12, but the plan was called off after drawing a fierce reaction from Beijing. On March 26, Taiwan and the US signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a coast guard working group. Beijing responded by dispatching 20 military aircraft to breach Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), setting a new record for the highest number of incursions in a single day since the Ministry of National Defense began publishing information on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft movements.
Three days later, US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland visited Taiwan; the PLA promptly dispatched 10 military aircraft to breach Taiwan’s ADIZ.
On Monday last week, the PLA Navy announced that the Liaoning aircraft carrier was conducting “routine” drills in the waters around Taiwan and that “similar exercises” would henceforth be conducted “regularly.”
On Wednesday last week, for the first time, military planes from Taiwan, the US and China flew concurrent missions to monitor each other near Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ. It marked 83 days of incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ by Chinese military jets this year, and the 239th Chinese military aircraft to have been expelled by Taiwanese interceptors since Jan. 1. With the high-level military face-off between the three nations, it is inevitable that sooner or later a miscalculation or accident could occur, with the potential to escalate into a full-blown conflict.
Heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait are in part due to displeasure in Beijing at Taiwan’s political trajectory, which it believes has deviated too far.
However, the increased tension is fundamentally a result of the shifting sands of geopolitics. The unfolding major reset of the US-China relationship has prompted Beijing to flex its muscles against Taiwan, causing a structural imbalance in the Strait.
US President Joe Biden has said that his administration would not pursue the previous administration’s goal of toppling the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, but would instead swap unilateralism for multilateralism, and develop a new strategy by holding discussions with like-minded nations. The Biden administration has also sought to recast China as a “competitor” rather than a “foe,” and said that it has no intention of starting a new cold war.
This new approach was formalized when the Biden administration on March 3 released its first foreign policy document, the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. The document referred to China, either directly or obliquely, as a “competitor,” “adversary” and partner for “cooperation.” It puts flesh on the bones regarding the direction of the new US-China relationship under Biden. However, following the document’s release, some members of the Republican Party have sought to characterize the Biden administration as pro-China.
To date, the US-China relationship under Biden has been wholly adversarial (including a US$2 trillion US stimulus package designed to boost the nation’s competitiveness). On Wednesday last week, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo intimated that the US-China trade war would continue under her watch, saying that tariffs imposed during the administration of former US president Donald Trump have “helped save American jobs in steel and aluminum industries.”
This has thoroughly frustrated China’s leaders, yet the Biden administration is responding to a tectonic geopolitical shift within the international community: first the COVID-19 pandemic and then Beijing’s imposition of a new National Security Law on Hong Kong have brought about a sea change in attitudes toward China across Europe.
On Jan. 26, just three days on the job, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked by telephone with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. The two parties agreed to cooperate closely on issues relating to China.
On March 18, prior to the high-level meeting between US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, Blinken led a team of US officials on a visit to Japan and South Korea to reach an understanding. Around the same time, the UK government said that the nation would initiate a defense and foreign policy “tilt” toward the Indo-Pacific region, which was subsequently confirmed with the publication on March 16 of the Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy.
The Alaska meeting broke up in discord, with each side leaving on bad terms. On March 22, the EU, the UK, Canada and the US launched coordinated sanctions against CCP officials over human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region. The following day, Australia’s and New Zealand’s foreign ministers issued a joint statement on Xinjiang. Then, on March 24, Blinken met with Borrell in person and issued a joint statement, marking the recommencement of US-EU dialogue on China. A day later, Biden held a virtual meeting with EU leaders during a European Council summit.
On Monday last week, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — an informal strategic alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India — held a virtual meeting during which the four nations agreed to send assets to participate in France’s annual La Perouse naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal, which commenced last week. The exercise forced China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier group to move further south.
On Tuesday last week, Japan and Germany held a “two-plus-two” dialogue via videoconference during which officials discussed measures to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The German government has said it would dispatch a warship to sail through the South China Sea in August. Additionally, German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who attended the dialogue, has previously stated that she believes China intends to reorder the world according to its own designs.
From Beijing’s perspective, Western nations have formed a contemporary “vertical and horizontal alliance” which threatens to encircle China. This might be the reason why, after the Alaska meeting, Chinese state newspaper the People’s Daily published a photograph of the Boxer Protocol, signed in 1901 between the Qing Empire and the Eight-Nation Alliance. China’s reaction was prompt and emphatic.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) much-trumpeted “historic great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” is gradually incubating a worrying neo-nationalistic sentiment in China.
At the 19th CCP National Congress Xi said that “a new era for China is upon us. The People’s Republic of China is every day getting closer to the center of the world,” and at this year’s “two meetings” stated: “The Chinese people can now look the world squarely in the face.”
These two statements chime with Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi’s (楊潔篪) remark during the Alaska meeting that “the US is unqualified to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength” and Chinese Ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai’s (崔天凱) criticism of “hegemonic” US foreign policy.
China’s neo-nationalism, which is centered around sovereignty and national security, appears increasingly belligerent to the outside world. China’s tit-for-tat robust exchanges at the Alaska meeting was a harbinger of things to come. Beijing’s new foreign policy strategy is to hit back hard when challenged: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
As for the military threat to Taiwan, Beijing’s language and actions are becoming increasingly stark. Whether China would up the ante further and expand its military threats to other regions of the globe is an open question.
At the Alaska summit, the US side did not include Taiwan in its list of security concerns within the Indo-Pacific region, but framed Taiwan within the context of Beijing’s two most sensitive human rights problems in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The verbal jousting at the meeting showed how serious the standoff between the two nations has become — could such arm wrestling be extended to the “Taiwan question” in the future?
The situation in the Strait is going through an unprecedented period of flux; Taiwan’s policymakers cannot afford to rest on their laurels.
Chao Chien-min is director of Chinese Culture University’s College of Social Sciences.
Translated by Edward Jones
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