On Friday last week, 38 Chinese military aircraft crossed into Taiwan’s southwestern air defense identification zone (ADIZ), the highest single-day tally since records on incursions were made public in September last year. The following day, the number increased to 39 and on Monday Beijing set another record, dispatching 56 aircraft into the same area.
The sharp escalation in China’s “gray zone” campaign against Taiwan caused international commentators to posit theories to explain Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) reasons for upping the ante. These have ranged from anger at Taiwan’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ostentatious display of military prowess timed to coincide with China’s National Day, intimidation of Taiwan ahead of Double Ten National Day, and an attempt to distract from China’s depressed economy and mounting dissatisfaction with Xi’s leadership.
Some or all of these factors might be at play, but they ignore a key question: Why do such missions often occur to the southwest of Taiwan and comprise a mix of aircraft — fighter escorts, bombers, anti-submarine planes, airborne early warning aircraft and electronic warfare planes?
The geography of the South China Sea makes China particularly vulnerable to a maritime blockade off its eastern seaboard. A continental land power that relies on imported fuel, iron ore and grain to drive its economy and feed its citizens, China’s maritime trade routes are its Achilles’ heel. The sea contains only a handful of entry and exit points — narrow passages of water deep enough to accommodate large ships that China must dominate if it is to prevent a blockade and the slow asphyxiation of its economy during a wartime scenario.
On Sept. 27, satellite imagery showed the British Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier strike group, two US aircraft carrier groups — the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson — and the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Canberra converging on the South China Sea from all four points of the compass to conduct exercises. To gain entry into the sea, the ships transited through three key pinch points: near Japan’s Okinawa Islands to the north, the Strait of Malacca to the south and the Bashi Channel to the east.
To chart a direct route to the Bashi Channel, Chinese aircraft must pass through Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ, which suggests that there might be more than meets the eye to the dramatic increase in Chinese aircraft numbers. China’s dispatch of unprecedented numbers of aircraft toward the channel just as multinational carrier groups were entering the area was perhaps to signal that it possesses the ability to interdict and deny the US and its allies entry into the sea.
Correspondingly, the maneuvers of the US and its allies might have been to demonstrate their ability to force their way into the area to thwart a blockade or amphibious invasion of Taiwan, or seal up the sea’s entry points to facilitate a blockade. It had all the hallmarks of a classic game of high-stakes strategic deterrence, reminiscent of the Cold War.
The good news for Taiwan is that China is looking increasingly hemmed in by the US and Taiwan-friendly nations, who have determined it is in their strategic interest to prevent the South China Sea from becoming a de facto Chinese inland waterway.
It will be a multi-decade effort to see off the China threat, but if Taiwan and its allies can get their ducks in a row, historians might conclude that Xi committed a catastrophic error by so clearly telegraphing his territorial ambitions to the world.
Unless Hollywood movies like Greenland, Deep Impact, and Armageddon have predictive powers and a rogue space rock is heading our way, stopping Chinese Communist Party expansionism is likely to prove the single most challenging and dangerous problem of our lifetimes. How can the United States, Taiwan, and other liberal democracies prepare for and prevent attacks from China? How can Washington bolster Taipei’s confidence when it doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a real country and, so far, lacks the political will to make major adjustments to its ossified China policy and Taiwan policy? How can Taiwan make itself heard on the world stage when
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