Tensions are rising in the Taiwan Strait. Cross-strait relations have been strained since Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), became president of Taiwan’s government in 2016. But they have been exacerbated in recent weeks after a series of military-related incidents and the overall deterioration in relations between the United States, Taiwan’s main supporter, and China.
Tsai’s refusal to accept the “One China” policy, the framework for relations between Taiwan and China that states that both are part of the same country, infuriates the Beijing government and it has sought to force her to adopt that policy as a result. During the tenure of her predecessor as president, Beijing declared a diplomatic truce and stopped poaching countries that recognized Taiwan. That suspension has ended and now just 17 afford Taipei official diplomatic recognition.
Beijing is also providing economic support to constituencies in Taiwan that challenge Tsai and the DPP or to win over those that backed them in the past. That has earned sharp criticism for interfering in the island’s politics — which it is — but it has also been successful.
In recent weeks, however, tensions are escalating. Last month, two Chinese fighters deliberately crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait for the first time in almost two decades, entering Taiwanese airspace. Taiwan scrambled jets in response. Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu called the incident a provocative and dangerous act.
The incident spurred Tsai to urge the U.S., Taiwan’s closest military partner, to expedite her government’s request to sell it 66 F-16V fighter aircraft, weaponry that would “greatly enhance our land and air capabilities, strengthen military morale and show to the world the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense.” In fact, the sale would not tip the military balance over the strait; China’s defense budget is more than 20 times that of Taiwan’s and it would maintain considerably more forces in the event of a conflict.
The symbolism of the move is unmistakable, however. It is a sign of a renewed U.S. commitment to the island’s defense. It would be the first fighter jet sale since 1992; a similar request was rejected in 2011 and the existing fleet was upgraded instead. That complements last year’s decision by the Trump administration to approve a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.
Also last month, two U.S. warships crossed through the Taiwan Strait, the latest in a series of transits — the fifth since the U.S. Navy resumed sending surface combatants through the strait in July 2018 — that “demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The U.S. Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” the U.S. Pacific Fleet explained.
Finally, the U.S. allowed Tsai to make a transit stop in Hawaii after her tour of South Pacific islands to shore up diplomatic support. This is part of a broad expansion of contacts between the governments of Taiwan and the U.S.
Beijing has been outraged by all these developments. Its foreign ministry lodged “stern representations” upon news reports of the weapons sale; the defense ministry said that China was “firmly opposed” to those arms sales and military exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan. They also warned the U.S. to “recognize the high sensitivity and serious harm” of the issue and “avoid serious damage to China-U.S. cooperation,” a statement that sounded especially ominous as U.S. negotiators were arriving that day for trade talks.
Taiwanese officials have warned that they would shoot down a subsequent intrusion by Chinese jets. In a Facebook post, Tsai said she “ordered the military to forcefully expel any incursions across the ‘median line’ immediately.” Such a reaction is natural to territorial intrusions but it would give China an excuse to escalate, which could then prompt a U.S. response. Washington must be careful, then, to give Taiwan the means to defend itself and feel confident in its capabilities, without encouraging it to be reckless and provocative.
Cross-strait tensions have profound implications for Japan, Taiwan’s closest partner in the region. Japan is Taiwan’s third-largest trading partner, while Taiwan is Japan’s fourth-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $67.2 billion in 2018, a 7.2 percent increase from 2017. Japan is the fourth-largest source of foreign investment in Taiwan, with over $20 billion in cumulative investment the end of 2018. Japan has long recognized that the defense of Taiwan is integral to its own security. Navigating between Taipei and Beijing has long been a challenge for Tokyo and it is getting harder. Japan should counsel restraint on all sides, and insist on the peaceful and diplomatic resolution of all disputes.