Nearly 150 Chinese military aircraft flew through Taiwan’s ‘defense zone’ in four days: a record number.
Beijing has the military capabilities to take the country by 2025, Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng warned during a session with Taiwanese parliamentarians on Wednesday. “If they wanted to attack now, they could do it already,” Chiu said. But he thinks it would be more beneficial for China to wait a little longer.
The Chinese government in Beijing sees Taiwan, an island with its own democratically elected government that has never been under the administration of the People’s Republic of China, as a renegade province. And that sooner or later, preferably peacefully, but if necessary by military means, be brought under Chinese control. What are the chances that China will actually launch a military attack on Taiwan? Four questions about the increased tensions in the region.
1 What has happened in the last few days?
The Chinese government has flown an exceptionally high number of Chinese aircraft over a part of the sea that Taiwan considers its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Taiwan believes that Chinese aircraft may only cross that area if they have first requested permission from Taiwan. The area that the Chinese have flown through is not part of Taiwanese airspace, and no Chinese planes have flown over Taiwan. In 2020, 380 Chinese aircraft flew through the Taiwanese ADIZ, in 2021 there were 672 so far.
2 Why is China stepping up military pressure right now?
Many Western media blame increased Chinese aggression and an increasing impatience to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control. The Japanese newspaper Japan Times reports based on unnamed sources that China’s President Xi Jinping personally ordered increasing military pressure on Taiwan. He is said to have done so at a meeting of the Central Military Committee, the highest military body in China headed by Xi. The order would be in response to recent military exercises by six countries – the US, UK, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and also the Netherlands – near Okinawa, Japan.
Xi would see these military exercises as an attempt to prevent China from reuniting with Taiwan, or taking the Senkaku Islands. Those islands, called the Diaoyu Islands by China, are currently under Japanese rule, but China also claims them.
3 Why is China immediately sending such a large number of planes?
China is increasingly convinced that Taiwan might really want to declare independence. Until now, that has never happened, because that would bring nothing but misery to Taiwan and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen knows that too. China would then feel compelled to take Taiwan by military force.
China is concerned not only about Taiwan’s increasingly independent stance, but also about the increasingly extensive and open support of the United States and some European countries for Taiwan as a democratic enclave in the region.
President Biden met with his Chinese counterpart Xi on Wednesday. Afterwards, Biden reported that both presidents had agreed to abide by “the Taiwan Agreement.” Accidentally or deliberately, that is a very vague statement. Such an agreement does not formally exist.
The US recognizes Beijing’s authority, but reserves the right to provide Taiwan with weapons. Such arms supplies have increased in recent years. The US does not state that it will provide military assistance to Taiwan should China attack the island. But they also do not state that they will abandon the military defense of Taiwan.
4 Is China indeed planning to quickly bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control?
Opinions are divided on that. Many US experts believe that taking Taiwan by military means is the least attractive option for China. This would lead to much international reputational damage, to an expensive war and to major military losses. They think China will only do such a thing when Beijing is convinced that Taiwan is on the brink of declaring independence, or when Beijing thinks there is no other way to reunite.
It would be China’s preference to pressurize Taiwan by all means possible so that Beijing’s authority is eventually accepted there. Increasing military pressure, coupled with the message that US military personnel will not be willing to die for an independent Taiwan, is one way of doing this. Since the fall of Afghanistan, this argument has been emphasized even more.
Taiwan, meanwhile, is doing everything it can to get more Western support. President Tsai Ing-wen wrote in on Tuesday Foreign Affairs that other democracies “must remember that if Taiwan fell, the consequences would be catastrophic for peace in the region and for the system of democratic alliances. It would indicate that in the current global value war, authoritarian systems prevail over democracy.”