Decoding China’s recent aggression vis-a-vis Taiwan
Cross-strait tensions have escalated again leading to an extensive debate about the potential invasion of Taiwan by China. The intensity of the situation in Taiwan was best manifested in Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen’s words.
In an article published on October 5, she stated, “If Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic”. Her rather alarming statement was in the context of a recent surge in the number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) encroachments into Taiwan’s southwestern Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).
Between October 1 and 5, China sent as many as 150 warplanes into Taiwan’s ADIZ. On October 4, 56 PLA aircraft were sent, setting a record of the highest number of warplanes in a single day.
China’s bullying tactics are linked to its National Day celebrations held on October 1 and Taiwan’s Double Tenth Day on October 10, which unimaginatively heighten jingoist unification tendencies within China. But the number of incidents is also a telltale sign of Beijing’s desperation to intimidate Taipei, and push back the United States (US) and other countries from making any further commitments in supporting and securing Taiwan’s position vis-à-vis China.
To be sure, Chinese air and maritime incursions into Taiwanese territory is not a new phenomenon. China has been militarily coercing Taiwan since the 1990s. This has particularly been the case since Taiwan went through a democratic transition process.
Years of the cross-strait dialogue was unilaterally suspended by China when the Tsai Ing-wen-led Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a landslide victory in the 2016 presidential elections, and Tsai refused to affirm the so-called 1992 consensus. China was still content with poaching Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and, to some extent, successful in shrinking Taiwan’s international space.
However, in 2020 and 2021, Taiwan has not only stood up firmly to the China challenge, but has also gained accolades for its efficient, smooth, and transparent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Then, Tsai was mentioned in TIME magazine’s 2020 list of the world’s most influential people. This has only exacerbated the insecurity of the Chinese leadership.
This year has brought about a greater realisation on the part of major stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific that Taiwan’s security is at peril, and it must be included in the Indo-Pacific architecture. A clearer and repeated mention of Taiwan in the Japanese White Paper, and in statements by prominent Japanese leaders such as Taro Aso, indicate that Indo-Pacific powers are actively involved in working with Taiwan.
Taiwan has secured the strong support of the Joe Biden administration, continuing the tradition of bipartisan American support to its national security. Now, countries such as Australia, Japan, and even smaller European countries such as Slovakia and Lithuania are openly supporting Taiwan. While Taiwan remains concerned, it is also bracing itself for future eventualities having gained considerable support at the international stage.
For China, the issue is linked to both domestic and foreign relations. Greater international support and appreciation for Taiwan has made the Chinese leadership insecure. Xi Jinping seems to be under pressure at home to portray that the geopolitical situation is tilted in China’s favour. Similar moves by China along the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh confirm this further.
The evolving situation indicates China’s attempts to set a pattern to normalise the incursions while working towards framing a long-term narrative — a narrative that Taiwan is a part of China, and that China has not violated Taiwan’s ADIZ. The idea here is not to wage a full-fledged conflict yet.
China will not go in for a full-blown war unless it is confident of an outcome in its favour. For now, other than National Day optics and placating the domestic audience, China’s major objective seems to be testing Taiwan’s resolve and preparedness while also calculating how far it can go without escalating the situation.
Such moves by China are dangerous not only for Taiwan, but also for the stability of the Indo-Pacific. Like-minded countries should send out a clear signal that it is in China’s best interest to stop militarily coercing Taiwan and respect the status quo.
Sana Hashmi is a visiting fellow at the Taiwan Asia Exchange Foundation, Taiwan
The views expressed are personal