By sending 28 warplanes near Taiwan this week — the most in recent memory — China is attempting to highlight its resolve as it faces international calls to maintain “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait and as the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on July 1 fast approaches.
China’s military sent the aircraft, including nuclear-capable bombers, into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on Tuesday, just days after Group of Seven nations mentioned the island in a joint statement for the first time ever, urging “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”
The massive show of force came after a relative lull in the number of Chinese sorties into the ADIZ and bested the previous record, 25 warplanes, that was reported April 12. Tuesday’s mission included 14 J-16 and six J-11 fighter jets and four H-6 heavy bombers, as well as various surveillance and early warning aircraft, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said.
Adding to the volatile mix, the move also came as the Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike group conducted “routine” operations in the disputed South China Sea.
According to a map of Tuesday’s incursion released by Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, the bombers and a number of the fighters skirted the southern part of the island that faces the Bashi Channel — a key entry point from the western Pacific into the South China Sea that the Reagan strike group is believed to have traversed to enter the contested waterway.
The Chinese flights may have replicated exercises it conducted in late January that reportedly simulated a strike on a U.S. aircraft carrier operating in the same area. The Chinese military is also believed to be using the drills to practice “access denial” maneuvers that could prevent foreign forces from coming to Taiwan’s defense in a conflict.
A Pentagon spokesman told The Japan Times that China’s “increasing military activities conducted in the vicinity of Taiwan are destabilizing and increase the risk of miscalculation.”
The growing rancor and competition between China and the U.S. has stoked fears that a full-scale conflict could break out — with Taiwan caught in the middle, or being the cause of a conflagration itself.
Beijing views Taiwan as an inherent part of its territory and sees it as a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.
Washington, which switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, considers the self-ruled island a key partner and crucial line of defense as the Chinese military continues to push further into the western Pacific. Although it no longer formally recognizes Taiwan, the U.S. is required by law to provide Taipei with the means to defend itself, according to the Taiwan Relations Act.
In recent months, Chinese warplanes and vessels have routinely conducted operations in the vicinity of Taiwan, stoking fears of possible practice for an invasion.
Shows of strength in relation to Taiwan, seen by China’s ruling Communist Party as its most important and sensitive issue, are expected to rise in the weeks and months before and after the party marks 100 years since its founding.
“The buildup to the 100th anniversary of the CCP demands that the (People’s Liberation Army) demonstrates that its raison d’etre remains to defend China from outside forces and separatists,” Stephen Nagy, an expert on Asian geopolitics at International Christian University in Tokyo, said in reference to what he called China’s “brazen” moves around Taiwan.
“There is little political space during this sensitive anniversary to display anything but strength, confidence and bravado,” he added.
Beijing is also contending with an international community that, with the United States at the forefront, is becoming increasingly united in its concerns about China’s intentions toward Taiwan.
In the joint communique released Sunday after their summit in England, G7 nations addressed the soaring tensions in the area for the first time.
The G7 communique is just one of a growing list of public pronouncements explicitly mentioning Taiwan. That list includes joint U.S.-Japan, EU-Japan and U.S.-NATO statements, as well as remarks Wednesday by Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi emphasizing the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Now, “in the lead-up to the July anniversary, China is pushing back,” said Malcolm Davis, a former defense adviser to the Australian government and now a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
This pushback was seen Wednesday when a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office lambasted the G7 statement.
“We will never tolerate attempts to seek independence or wanton intervention in the Taiwan issue by foreign forces, so we need to make a strong response to these acts of collusion,” Ma Xiaoguang said when asked if Tuesday’s flights were in response to the G7 statement.
It’s unclear exactly what a Chinese response could entail, but some experts have said more pressure on Taiwan is to be expected, said Davis, especially as the U.S. moves its sole carrier home-ported in Asia — the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based Reagan — to the Middle East this summer to support the American military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Analysts fear this will leave a temporary vacuum that China could look to fill by employing its long-standing “salami-slicing” tactics — actions that fall below the level that would elicit a strong response from the U.S. and its allies but which subtly alter the status quo.
One option: seizing Pratas Island, a small but strategically significant atoll that sits between China’s Hainan Island and Taiwan and is home to a small airfield used mainly by the Taiwanese military. Observers say taking Pratas is important for China’s advance into the Pacific, and its seizure would be crucial for any invasion of Taiwan.
“My concern is whether the Chinese might try something, perhaps around one of Taiwan’s offshore territories such as Pratas Island, in the apparent absence of a forward-deployed U.S. Navy carrier,” Davis said.
Information from Reuters added
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