(NEW YORK) – Since the beginning of October, Beijing has sent more than 150 military planes into the Taiwan air defense zone in an attempt to intimidate the Taiwanese government. In recent days, the People’s Liberation Army has also organized large amphibious landing exercises on the mainland Taiwan Strait – a clear show of force and a sign of escalating tensions in the region.
Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng even warned the Taiwanese legislature earlier this month that Beijing may be able to launch a “full-scale” invasion of the island by 2025.
Tensions across the Taiwan Strait are now at an all-time high in years, and an unforeseen mistake on either side threatens to drag the United States into a potential conflict with China.
Beijing Taiwan Affairs Bureau spokesman Ma Xiaoguang called the military exercises “just” action aimed at “separatist activities” on the island and what he called “collusion with foreign forces. “from the ruling Progressive Democratic Party (DPP) – a not-so-veiled allusion to US support for Taiwan.
At the heart of the problem is Beijing’s view that Taiwan is a separatist province of 23 million people that will eventually have to “reunify” with the rest of China. Beijing’s leaders continue to push for what they call “peaceful reunification,” but have not ruled out the use of military force. Xi Jinping has stepped up the pressure on Taiwan, making reunification a declared goal of the “Chinese dream” of “national rejuvenation”.
Since returning to power in 2016, the DPP government has increasingly relied on the island’s separate self-government status and has simply failed to declare independence, which Beijing sees as a bright red line.
The “Taiwan question”
Beijing views the Taiwan question as a relic of national shame that arose when the island was taken from the Imperial Qing Dynasty by Japan as a colony in 1895.
At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) government of the Republic of China (ROC) withdrew to Taiwan, which it reclaimed at the end of World War II. Meanwhile, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has declared the mainland of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with both sides considering “reunification” of China. The Republic of China and the PRC both continue to claim legitimate sovereignty over China, with Beijing frequently threatening to liberate the island.
The United States maintained official diplomatic relations with Taipei until 1979, when it transferred recognition to Beijing. Change was facilitated when Taiwan was not the democracy it is today but an authoritarian regime.
By transferring diplomatic recognition to Beijing, the United States and China have agreed to abide by the “One China” policy. For the United States, it was recognition that the “Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is only one China,” but Taiwan’s status is undetermined and should be resolved peacefully. For Beijing, this means that Taiwan belongs to Beijing’s “one China”. These different interpretations of politics have formed the basis of US-China relations.
In order to give assurances to Taiwan, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which calls on the United States to maintain informal and de facto relations with Taipei and allows the United States to supply Taiwan with self-defense weapons. The act, however, did not guarantee that the United States would intervene if Beijing attacks or invades the island, but creates “strategic ambiguity” in the hope of deterring Beijing from attacking and Taipei from unilaterally declaring independence.
Beijing quickly began to offer Taipei the option of “peaceful reunification”. As Hong Kong prepared to be handed over from the British to the Chinese in 1997, Beijing proposed using the Hong Kong-designed “One Country, Two Systems” principle as a model to bring Taiwan back into the fold.
Isolate the Tsai Ing-wen government
Since coming to power in 2016, Tsai has tiptoed across acceptable boundaries of the two-shore relationship, but has never publicly embraced independence or the 1992 Consensus, the latter angering Beijing. .
Almost immediately, Beijing cut all official lines of communication with Tsai’s DPP government, branding the DPP as secessionist. Beijing has suspended all Chinese tourist groups on the island, cutting off a reliable source of income on the island. Beijing then began poaching Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies in hopes of completely isolating the government. During Tsai’s first term as president, she lost seven diplomatic allies to Beijing.
The compression almost worked. One year away from the 2020 election, Tsai was on shaky ground for re-election, but the 2019 protests in Hong Kong erupted. Playing on fear of further encroachment from Beijing and the broken promises of “Once Country, Two Systems” gave Tsai the momentum needed to be re-elected in a landslide in early 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The “One Country, Two Systems” prospect had become so toxic in Taiwan after the Hong Kong protests that the KMT and DPP publicly dismissed it as a possibility for Taiwan.
“Gray Zone” War Amid Cratered US-China Relations
Emerging from the pandemic with renewed confidence, Beijing began to refocus its pressure campaign on Taiwan just as its relationship with Washington began to deteriorate.
Beijing quickly began to use what Taiwan called a low-level “gray zone war” to exhaust the Taiwanese army and people. In 2020, Chinese fighter jets carried out 380 incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone, forcing Taipei to bring in its own jets each time. The incursions have only increased this year.
In response, the United States engaged more openly with Taiwan. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed all restrictions between diplomatic contacts between U.S. and Taiwanese officials in the final days of the Trump administration, infuriating Beijing. The Biden administration has gone further by encouraging working relations with Taiwanese officials, even inviting the Taiwanese envoy to President Biden’s inauguration.
At the same time, Beijing has fueled a rise in nationalist sentiment across the country, fueled in part by their success in suppressing COVID-19 and the growing opinion that Western powers, particularly the United States, are in. a state of decline illustrated by its failure to control the pandemic.
Opinion was further infuriated by Chinese state media which touted the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. Chinese nationalist tabloid Global Times described the United States as unreliable, wondering if Afghanistan was “some kind of omen for Taiwan’s future fate?”
Just as Americans have an increasingly unfavorable view of China, the Chinese public has an increasingly hostile view of Americans. The Eurasia Group Foundation found that less than 35% of Chinese people have a positive opinion of the United States, up from 57% two years earlier.
Chinese propaganda and pop culture have taken advantage of and normalized an American-Chinese conflict. The Chinese blockbuster “The Battle of Changjin Lake”, funded by the government’s propaganda department, chronicles a PLA victory over US troops in the Korean War. As of October 1, it has grossed over $ 633 million at the Chinese box office.
Now armed with the best-equipped military China has ever possessed, including the world’s largest navy by number of ships, Xi has prepared Chinese officials and the military for the difficult days ahead.
“We must persist in strengthening comprehensive planning for the war and preparing for military struggle,” he told the Politburo over the summer and in September to young Communist Party officials, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered a key phase, and the risks and challenges we face are increasing dramatically. It is unrealistic to always expect easy days and not want to struggle.
With China facing an unprecedented domestic power crisis, a major real estate developer threatening the economy with impending default, a major meeting of Communist Party leaders in November, and the task of hosting the Olympic Games in November. winter in a few months, Beijing could have even more pressing problems than entering a conflict over Taiwan.
After unprecedented jets intrusions into the defense zone, it appears Beijing and Taipei tried to temporarily lower the temperature a notch in separate speeches celebrating a joint anniversary across the Taiwan Strait last weekend.
As Xi reiterates his desire for “reunification,” he stressed that “peaceful means serve the best interests of the Chinese nation as a whole, including compatriots in Taiwan.”
Tsai from Taiwan called for dialogue with Beijing on “the basis of parity”.
It comes as Beijing and Washington have tried to stabilize their relationship in recent weeks with a series of meetings.
Even after reports of a small presence of US Marines deployed to train Taiwanese forces on the island – an act Beijing could see as a violation of their red line – the Foreign Ministry spokesperson chose to highlight the gradual process being carried out at a meeting between National Biden Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, who are setting the stage for the virtual Biden-Xi summit before the end of the year .
Asked about rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei, President Biden told reporters he raised the issue with Xi during a phone call.
“I spoke with Xi about Taiwan. We agree… we will respect the Taiwan agreement, ”he said. “We’ve made it clear that I don’t think he should do anything other than stick to the deal.”
After the comments, the Taiwanese Foreign Office was assured by the United States that the US commitment to Taiwan was “rock solid.”
Beijing continued to warn the United States against playing the “Taiwan Card”.
How the U.S.-China relationship continues to unfold in the months and years to come will ultimately determine Taiwan’s future.
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