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China’s muted reaction over a U.S. military flight to Taiwan prompted criticism from nationalists online, underscoring the pressures on President Xi Jinping to follow through on heated “red line” rhetoric.

The U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane made a three-hour stopover in Taipei on Sunday to carry a bipartisan congressional delegation visiting Taiwan. Three U.S. senators — Democrats Tammy Duckworth and Chris Coons and Republican Dan Sullivan — met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and announced plans to donate 750,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses to help alleviate its shortage of shots.

Although Taiwanese media reported that it was the first C-17 visit since at least 1995, the Chinese response was relatively measured. State media, including the official Xinhua News Agency, didn’t report on the trip while the Foreign Ministry and Taiwan Affairs Office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

That left some nationalist voices in China demanding a stronger reaction to enforce Beijing’s view that the island is part of its territory, as video clips of the American plane at Taipei Songshan Airport circulated on Weibo. The most-liked comment on a post of C-17 photos said: “Our red line is no red line. If this is the case, how can foreigners treat Taiwan as part of China?”

Chinese social media users urged efforts to prevent the U.S. from trying to slowly expand ties without provoking a conflict. “This is a salami-slicing move that is continuously pressing your red line,” one popular Weibo post said.

Such sentiment shows the difficult balancing act facing Xi’s government after years of escalating rhetoric and military activities intended to discourage closer ties between Taipei and Washington. Top Chinese officials have repeatedly vowed to prevent what they see as foreign interference in their affairs, while Foreign Minister Wang Yi specifically warned the U.S. in March to stop “crossing lines and playing with fire” on Taiwan.

“The status quo has never been static, and both China and the United States have made significant shifts in their Taiwan policy of late,” said Natasha Kassam, director of the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program. “The U.S. is going beyond past practice, but this is a response to China’s posturing.”

Ambiguous red lines

Beijing passed a law in 2005 asserting the right to “use non-peaceful and other necessary means” to prevent Taiwan from formally declaring independence. Short of that, however, China’s red lines remain ambiguous.

In 2017, one Chinese diplomat said that a port visit to Taiwan by an American warship could be grounds for an attack. Last August, the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper said in an editorial that Taiwan risked “crossing the Chinese mainland’s red line” and prompting a conflict, if it made arrangements of take-offs and landings of U.S. military jets.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (right) meets U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth in Taipei on Sunday. | TAIWAN PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE / VIA REUTERS
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (right) meets U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth in Taipei on Sunday. | TAIWAN PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE / VIA REUTERS

The Global Times was more restrained in its response to the C-17 flight, describing it on Monday as “U.S.-Taiwan collusion.” The vaccine donation appeared intended to conceal military exchanges and China would likely respond with more military patrols near Taipei, the paper said, citing experts.

Near-daily incursions

Chinese military aircraft have made near daily incursions into the southwest section of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone since September. The People’s Liberation Army sent 25 fighters and bombers over the Taiwan Strait in April, while its Liaoning aircraft carrier in April carried out exercises in waters not far from the main island.

The vaccine donation represents U.S. President Joe Biden’s latest attempt to reassure Taiwan that he’ll continue the Trump administration’s efforts to expand ties with Taipei. U.S. Navy warships have sailed through the strait five times since Biden took office on Jan. 20, roughly on pace to match last year’s total of 13 such operations.

The C-17 flight was “pretty consistent” with past practice for congressional delegations, according to Drew Thompson, a former official overseeing military-to-military relations for the U.S. defense secretary who is now a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Still, he called the trip a show of support.

“The visit is to reassure Tsai Ing-wen that the U.S is paying attention to cross strait stability and also press upon them that they need to provide for their own defense,” he said.

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