Chinese warplanes — including advanced fighters and nuclear-capable bombers — have conducted more than 150 sorties into airspace near Taiwan in the first five days of October, setting single-day records on three of those and raising the specter of military miscalculation.

The incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) — which differs from sovereign airspace — and the confusion over the moves’ intended signals have unleashed a flood of concern in both Washington and Tokyo. The two capitals both view Taipei as a crucial, albeit informal, partner in combating Beijing’s attempts to change the status quo in the region via coercion.

But the latest flights, as well as other moves coming out of Beijing, Washington, Taipei and even Tokyo, have been especially concerning as the Sino-U.S. rivalry pushes the two powers’ relationship to its lowest point in decades and triggers fears of a new Cold War that would envelop all four capitals.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden said that he had spoken to Chinese leader Xi Jinping about the tensions over Taiwan, which China views as an inherent part of its territory and a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.

“We’ll abide by the Taiwan agreement,” Biden said. “We made it clear that I don’t think he should be doing anything other than abiding by the agreement.”

Biden appeared to be referring to Washington’s long-standing “One China policy,” under which it officially recognizes Beijing rather than Taipei, and the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the U.S. must help Taiwan defend itself. Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One in Lansing, Michigan, on Tuesday. | REUTERS
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Air Force One in Lansing, Michigan, on Tuesday. | REUTERS

In a possible off-ramp for the soaring tensions, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan was due to hold talks with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in Switzerland on Wednesday.

“As we’ve said, we will continue to seek to responsibly manage the competition between the U.S. and the PRC, and that’s what this meeting is about,” principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday, using the acronym for China’s official name.

Warplane incursions

Much of the recent focus has been on China’s dispatch of fighters, bombers and other warplanes into the southwest corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ, including a record 56 sorties on Monday.

The activity, which the White House said “risks miscalculations and undermines regional peace and stability,” came as the Japanese, U.S., British, Dutch, Canadian and New Zealand navies held joint drills near Okinawa Prefecture over the weekend. In a rare move, three allied aircraft carriers — the USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan and HMS Queen Elizabeth — took part in that training.

In response, Chinese leader Xi Jinping personally instructed the country’s top military body to ratchet up pressure in the southwestern part of the ADIZ, Kyodo News reported, apparently in the belief that the focus of the allied carrier exercises was practice for preventing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

China has conducted military flights in the ADIZ at a near-daily clip in the years since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the Taiwanese presidency in 2016.

But large-scale incursions such as those Friday through Monday had been rare until recently.

The exact rationale for these flights remains elusive, but experts say they serve multiple purposes and interests. Sending the warplanes allows Beijing to probe and stress the Taiwanese military while at the same time providing invaluable training opportunities for the Chinese side.

But having them venture into the southwest corner of the ADIZ, approximately 300 kilometers away from Taiwan, has also allowed China a degree of flexibility — it can warn Taipei not to cross Beijing’s red lines and at the same time avoid signaling that invasion is imminent.

“China sometimes uses these PLAAF sorties for signaling purposes, but not always,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund think tank, referring to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

Growing pressure

Beyond the ominous warplane flights, Beijing has also worked tirelessly to peel away the handful of allies Taiwan maintains — it has just 15 — while also seeking to isolate it on the international stage.

The most recent example of this has been Beijing’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — an Asia-Pacific trade deal once backed by Washington as a means of checking China and cementing U.S. economic dominance in Asia.

Taiwan, which had been looking to join the pact itself, quickly filed its own application shortly afterward. In an apparent response, China sent 24 warplanes into Taiwan’s ADIZ the following day.

The rival applications are now widely expected to be bogged down in a protracted and politicized process, a scenario that would suit Beijing’s goal of stymieing Taipei from acquiring broader international recognition akin to that of a sovereign nation.

Drawing in others

The ramped-up pressure and increasing rancor and competition between China and the U.S. have also pushed other regional players such as Japan and Australia to publicly enter the fray.

Japan and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic ties, but the two sides have long maintained a robust relationship that includes economic and cultural exchanges. In recent months, however, the relationship has undergone something of a shift, with Tokyo becoming far more vocal in the public sphere about its concerns over China’s assertiveness, including its actions near the self-ruled island.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi arrives at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi arrives at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on Monday. | REUTERS

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, one of just two holdovers in the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, signaled that the new government would continue to take a more publicly assertive stance on the Taiwan issue.

Motegi said that he hoped “the matter is resolved peacefully between the two parties through direct dialogue,” but hinted that Japan views a Taiwan contingency as a potential existential threat to its own security.

“Instead of simply monitoring the situation, we hope to weigh the various possible scenarios that could arise and consider what options we have, as well as the preparations we must make,” he said.

Australia, meanwhile, has also said it is “concerned” over China’s moves against the self-ruled island.

“Resolution of differences over Taiwan and other regional issues must be achieved peacefully through dialogue and without the threat or use of force or coercion,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs has said.

Those remarks came as Taiwan’s foreign minister warned that the island is preparing for war and that Australia should now come to its aid by developing closer ties.

“We would like to engage in security or intelligence exchanges with other like-minded partners, Australia included, so Taiwan is better prepared to deal with the war situation,” Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Monday.

What’s next?

Contrary to some breathless media reports — and even then-U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Philip Davidson’s six-year timeline for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan — it’s unclear if there is a certain window for China’s ruling Communist Party.

As Xi looks to further consolidate his power by securing an unprecedented third term at a twice-a-decade party congress in late 2022, it’s unlikely that he would risk a destabilizing attack on the island ahead of the conclave if he were unsure of its success.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping raises his glass after a speech by Premier Li Keqiang at a reception at Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Sept. 30, a day before China's National Day. | AFP-JIJI
Chinese leader Xi Jinping raises his glass after a speech by Premier Li Keqiang at a reception at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Sept. 30, a day before China’s National Day. | AFP-JIJI

Any rushed attempt to reunify the island with the mainland would likely prove difficult at this stage, considering the complexity of such an operation and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) relative inexperience in actual combat.

Instead, Xi may be aiming to keep Taiwan and the ruling DPP in check out of the fear that Taipei might be emboldened by growing U.S., Japanese and international support to formally declare independence.

Although Tsai has claimed in the past that Taiwan is “already independent,” she has refrained from more provocative statements on the issue.

Instead, she has focused on building up international support for Taiwan, calling it “a liberal democracy on the frontlines of a new clash of ideologies.”

“Vibrantly democratic and Western, yet influenced by a Chinese civilization and shaped by Asian traditions, Taiwan, by virtue of both its very existence and its continued prosperity, represents at once an affront to the narrative and an impediment to the regional ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party,” Tsai wrote in an article published Tuesday in Foreign Affairs magazine.

“As countries increasingly recognize the threat that the Chinese Communist Party poses, they should understand the value of working with Taiwan. And they should remember that if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system.”

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen poses for photographs in front of the Presidential Palace in Taipei on Tuesday during a ceremony to celebrate next week's National Day. | AFP-JIJI
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen poses for photographs in front of the Presidential Palace in Taipei on Tuesday during a ceremony to celebrate next week’s National Day. | AFP-JIJI

Still, Xi and others in the Communist Party are believed to view Taiwan’s continued unwillingness to submit as a threat to their own legitimacy. This has especially been the case since 2019, when Xi framed reunification as a requirement for achieving the “China Dream,” a concept intimately associated with the party’s long-standing goals for 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s founding.

“If the PLA fails, the CCP’s legitimacy will certainly be damaged,” Glaser said during an online lecture last week. “Xi Jinping has told the Chinese people that the military has the ability to defend the country’s interests. What if it doesn’t? Will Xi Jinping risk regime security to reunify Taiwan with the motherland. I think the answer to that is no.”

Taiwan, for it’s part, has stressed the need to show Beijing that it won’t be waiting around to find out if the invasion predictions pan out, with government officials repeatedly pointing out the severity of the situation around the island and the need to bolster its defenses.

On Wednesday, Taiwan’s defense chief was the latest high-level official to highlight this view.

Speaking in parliament, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng called the situation “the most serious” in the more than 40 years since he joined the military, specifically highlighting the risk of a “misfire” across the Taiwan Strait.

Chiu said China already has the ability to invade Taiwan, but that it will be capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.

“By 2025, China will bring the cost and attrition to its lowest. It has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily, having to take many other things into consideration.”

Information from Reuters added

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