Taipei Times readers may not have noticed, but for several days at the beginning of the month, there was a considerable amount of American jet fighter activity out of Okinawa. On Saturday, July 30, Ryukyu Shimpo (琉球新報) reported the unusual arrival of nine refueling tankers at Kadena Air Base (嘉手納空軍基地). Then, just after dark at 2100 hours Tuesday, August 2, eight US Air Force F-15 “Eagle” fighters flying out of Kadena flashed onto civilian aviation radar screens roughly 50 nautical miles east of Taipei. They were configured for either “combat air patrol” (CAP) or “defensive counter-air” (DCA) maneuvers. Attending these eight heavily-armed American jets were another four American KC-135 tanker aircraft farther east.
This twelve-ship air mission was visible because its transponder signals were live and were reported by an amateur aviation website in Japan using the Twitter handle “@TokyoRadar.” “@TokyoRadar” tweeted that the twelve aircraft returned to Kadena at midnight after four hours in the air.
Early the following evening, Japan’s NHK news website reported that another six American F-15 fighter jets had launched from Kadena air base at 1720 hours. The Wednesday mission was accompanied by three large in-flight refueling KC-135s. These nine aircraft proceeded to the same rendezvous point over the seas east of Taiwan, arriving at about 1900 hours.
The timing of these missions suggests they were part of combined US Navy and Air Force protective operations for US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial travel to Taipei. It was no coincidence that the Speaker’s “special air mission” US Air Force Boeing 737-700 entered Taiwan airspace late Tuesday night — exactly as the eight F-15 Eagles from Kadena loitered within a 50 nautical mile radius to ensure her safety; and it departed Taipei Songshan airport for Seoul the following evening to meet the six F-15 Eagle escort which again enclosed the Boeing 737 in a DCA bubble several dozen miles wide.
Not only were there US Air Force fighter formations in the air to cover Speaker Pelosi’s Taipei arrival and departure, on seas east of Taiwan the US Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group (CSG) steamed with a full air wing embarked. The Reagan cancelled a port call in Vietnam the week ahead of Ms. Pelosi’s Taiwan journey and made way at flank speed out to the Philippine Sea. At the last moment, the Pelosi air mission flight-path had made a wide diversion over Borneo and Celebes, thence north along the east coast of the Philippine Islands, a maneuver necessary to avoid a fraught direct transit of the South China Sea. As Pelosi’s airplane approached nighttime Taiwan from the east, the massive helicopter carrier USS Tripoli with its Marine air wing of vertical take-off/landing F-35 “Lightning” fighters embarked, stood sentinel upon the seas below.
Both the USS Reagan and the USS Tripoli task forces remained in the waters east of Taiwan through the Pelosi visit and through the subsequent Chinese missile strikes of August 4-7, both to gather telemetry from the Chinese ballistic missiles and to provide support to Taiwan military, air and naval forces should China provoke a crisis.
In fact, these two aircraft carriers and their fleets remain in the Philippine Sea off Taiwan as of this writing. Biden’s top Indo-Pacific aide, Kurt Campbell, said on Friday August 12, “President Biden directed the USS Ronald Reagan to stay on station as the PRC continued its provocative activities.” The Tripoli remains as well. It is a show of American military force in the Taiwan area unseen since the Formosa Strait Crisis of 1958.
But it was unavoidable. As soon as news of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan was reported by the Financial Times on July 19, Beijing’s propaganda machine pelted both US Speaker Pelosi and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) with a steady hail of threats, insults and opprobrium in increasing volume and violence.
On Friday morning, July 28, President Biden himself phoned Chinese State Chairman Xi Jinping (習近平) to calm the waters, but to no avail. Both in public media and in confidential demarches China’s reactions became ever more strident and ominous. The Financial Times reported “one person said China had expressed ‘stronger opposition’ to the US in private than before.” And that “several other people familiar with the situation said the private rhetoric went even further by suggesting a possible military response.” In tandem with back-channel Chinese ultimatums, China’s state-controlled social media unleashed vituperation. The day after news of Pelosi’s putative visit, commentator Hu Xijin (胡錫進) suggested “PLA military aircraft will accompany Pelosi’s plane to enter the island, making a historic crossing of the island by military aircraft from the mainland for the 1st time. Its significance would overwhelm Pelosi’s visit.”
Speaker Pelosi was unimpressed, even as Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark A. Milley, Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral John C. Aquilino and others briefed her on the elaborate and complex military planning necessary to protect her travel. By Saturday July 23, according to Josh Rogin of The Washington Post, plans were under way to deploy the Reagan and the Tripoli to Taiwan and to assign air force fighter jets “for close air support.” In the end, General Milley, no doubt aware of the Speaker’s firm intention to continue with her Taiwan plans, told reporters, “If there’s a decision made that Speaker Pelosi or anyone else is going to travel and they asked for military support, we will do what is necessary to ensure a safe conduct of their visit.”
I suspect US officials expended little effort to sugar-coat this news for Beijing. Chinese interlocutors stepped up the heat. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Senior Col. Tan Kefei (譚克非) said July 26, “the Chinese military will never sit idly by and will certainly take strong and resolute measures to thwart any interference by external forces.”
Perhaps on instructions from the Central Propaganda Department, Global Times commentator Hu Xijin could contain himself no longer. On Friday, July 29, he tweeted, “if US fighter jets escort Pelosi’s plane into Taiwan, it is invasion. The PLA has the right to forcibly dispel Pelosi’s plane and the US fighter jets, including firing warning shots and making tactical movement of obstruction. If ineffective, then shoot them down.”
At this, the censors at Twitter balked. Advocating the assassination of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives is too much, even for them. Twitter blocked Hu Xijin’s account and the next day Hu was compelled to delete his offending tweet.
But the damage was done. Ms. Pelosi was more determined than ever to see her Taipei journey through to the end. In truth, Speaker Pelosi has braved much more dangerous travel in just the past few months. On May 1, one day after Russian rockets rained down upon United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visiting Kyiv, Ms. Pelosi flew secretly into the Ukrainian capital to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and to reassure Ukrainians of the US Congress’s strong support for their resistance to Russia. Her Ukraine touchdown was successful — and secret. Pelosi tried to keep her Taiwan plans secret, too, but they were leaked to reporters by administration officials who hoped to derail her travel. Once public, however, no amount of threats could dissuade her.
In my last column, I explained that “so long as China pretends to have a ‘peaceful’ policy toward Taiwan, the United States will pretend to have a ‘one China’ policy.” And I suspect that every time a senior US official meets a Chinese counterpart, this reality is explained and re-explained. At last, the message seems to be soaking in.
On August 10, Beijing’s “State Council Taiwan Affairs Office” suddenly issued a “White Paper on the Taiwan Question.” It was only the third such “White Paper” in three decades. The first one was issued one day before the first Cross-Strait talks in Beijing in August 1993; that 1993 version mentioned the word “peaceful” 22 times. The second came in February 2000, right before the election of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) as president of Taiwan. It included the word “peaceful” 20 times. This August 2022 iteration, entitled “The Taiwan Question and China’s Reunification in the New Era,” mentions “peaceful reunification” 55 times. It’s not much, but it’s something. Perhaps Beijing’s condescension to repeat the word “peaceful” 55 times in this rare, once-a-generation “Taiwan” policy document was coaxed out of the Chinese state council by Speaker Pelosi’s fighter escorts.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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