There are few coincidences in the world of foreign diplomacy. Two days after a Japanese government donation of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Taiwan on Friday last week, a US delegation led by US senators Tammy Duckworth, Dan Sullivan and Chris Coons touched down at Taipei International Airport (Songshan airport) in a US military transport aircraft, which flew in from Osan Air Base in South Korea.
The cross-party delegation of US senators announced that Washington would donate 750,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses to Taiwan in the first wave of the US Foreign Vaccine Sharing Program. Japan and the US’ vaccine donations are timely relief and would help ease some of the pressure for Taiwan to obtain vaccines.
In addition to expressing thanks for support from Japan and the US, as well as the tireless efforts of overseas Taiwanese and the nation’s diplomatic corps, Taiwanese should view the vaccine donations as an indication of a change in Taiwan’s role within the global strategic picture.
First, a US military aircraft reportedly accompanied the Japan Airlines plane that delivered the vaccines from Tokyo last week.
Second, the US delegation arrived on a Boeing C-17 Globemaster, rather than a more conventional Boeing C-40 Clipper transport aircraft, and landed at Songshan airport — a dual-use commercial airport and military airbase. The aircraft parked within the military airbase area of the airport complex and the delegation met with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) at Songshan Air Base Command Headquarters.
The visit was clearly designed to convey a strategic political and military message. It was also the first time that US senators have flown on a US military aircraft to visit Taiwan and the first time that a US military strategic transport aircraft has touched down at Songshan airport.
Capable of transporting US troops to every corner of the globe, the C-17 Globemaster’s dispatch to Songshan airport was a demonstration of the airport’s capability to accommodate such aircraft during an emergency.
Despite the steady march of the People’s Republic of China’s “bamboo curtain” in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, if necessary, the US can transport to Taipei or other frontline airbases large strategic payloads of equipment and troops from US military bases in South Korea within six hours’ notice.
The C-17’s landing at Songshan airport could also be interpreted as a robust deterrence response following an intrusion into Malaysian airspace by 16 Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft on Monday last week.
In August last year, a Chinese think tank claimed that a US military Lockheed EP-3E electronic signals reconnaissance aircraft had landed and taken off from a Taiwanese airbase.
The Chinese-language version of China’s state-run tabloid newspaper the Global Times published a long editorial in which it screamed that “[China] needs to give the ‘Tsai authorities’ a fundamental warning.”
The article also cautioned: “US military aircraft landing and taking off from Taiwanese airfields will start a war on the Taiwan Strait; [China] would crush Taiwan’s airbases and destroy US military aircraft.”
The C-17’s landing at Songshan airport is unquestionably the most direct and undisguised display of the US’ commitment to Taiwan since the US Office of Naval Research’s Thomas G. Thompson research vessel docked at the Port of Kaohsiung for three days in October 2018.
However, aside from the Global Times editorial, to date Beijing has taken no discernible action in response to the C-17 landing on Taiwanese soil.
This has driven China’s 50 Cent Army of ultra-nationalist keyboard warriors apoplectic with rage and sparked a flurry of rarely seen criticism of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and other organs of the Chinese state.
The US delegation’s trip to the Maldives, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan connects important US allies and military partners. Taken in conjunction with the US military’s patroling of island chains in the South China Sea, the delegation was clearly part of a wider operation designed to demonstrate Washington’s resolve to assist US allies to resist Chinese expansionism ahead of last weekend’s G7 summit in the UK.
It could be said that the delegation’s whirlwind visit to Taiwan on the C-17 was a “fundamental warning” from US President Joe Biden to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Sheng I-che is a graduate student at National Chung Cheng University’s Institute of Strategic and International Affairs.
Translated by Edward Jones
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