Earlier this month, in the wake of president-elect Joe Biden’s election victory, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan went on a charm offensive to ensure US backing would continue under the new administration following increased aggression from China. Her appeal is aimed at encouraging US public support for Taiwan as the Biden administration is due to make its stance known on the 71-year-old dispute.
Tensions have been escalating in the South China Sea all year with Taiwan having to send 1,223 ships to meet challenges by the Chinese navy, almost 50 per cent more vessels than last year. The PLA has also held several, highly publicised, life-fire drills in the seas surrounding Taiwan, including within the Taiwan Strait. These regular drills became especially hostile on September 19 when China flew 21 fighter jets along the edge of Taiwan’s airspace, the single strongest air action China has made since the Cold War.
President Trump’s often unruly actions, whilst deterring China from invading, may also escalate tensions and further the possibility of military conflict in the region.
Events came to a particularly high point just last week as China sent their new aircraft carrier, the Shangdong, into the very same area of the Taiwan Strait a US warship had passed through the previous day and released a video showing tanks in a mock street battle. Despite this escalation of tensions and the obvious signs of preparation for war, a recent Taiwan opinion poll shows 80 per cent of people do not believe China will invade the island. Several military experts have similarly argued that these invasion simulations do not constitute an invasion being inevitable.
“China’s not getting ready for something [like an invasion], it’s conducting military diplomacy by using its military forces to try to make political statements on the one hand, and on the other hand, it is trying to put some more miles on Taiwanese aircraft,” said Dennis Blair, a former commander of the US Pacific fleet. He also cited the fact that China has yet to conduct a naval exercise in the Taiwan Strait with more than about 1,000 people, at least 80,000 troops short of what would be needed for an actual invasion. Up until recently President Tsai has been slightly cautious of getting the US too involved in the situation, believing President Trump’s often unruly actions, whilst deterring China from invading, may also escalate tensions and further the possibility of military conflict in the region.
Since this summer, however, she has sought to further bolster the nation’s military with US arms in the hopes of dissuading President Xi of any illusions of an invasion’s ease. This change of strategy is believed to be down to her confidence in the Biden administration’s ability to calm tensions but also have Taiwan’s back without becoming too headstrong.
This arms build-up has had Taipei spending billions over recent months, $4.8bn over a single fortnight in November which included four drones for spotting Chinese invasion preparations. Since the “1992 consensus” Taipei has tacitly agreed that unification would eventually occur, that is until when, in 2016, President Tsai refused to recognise the agreement, referring to it as an ‘historic fact’. US officials say the subsequent escalation of military activity is at its highest level in more than twenty years and that their backing is the only thing preventing a Chinese invasion, but Taiwan’s official line to its people remains “Don’t you worry!”.
President Tsai would do well to realise, however, that, if Beijing’s recent policies of democratic suppression in Hong Kong and firefights with Indian troops in the Himalayas is anything to judge them by, they have no intention of walking away from such a convenient opportunity to expand their sphere of influence – to make their tenth dash in their “Nine Dash Line” around the South China Sea a reality.
Image: Daryl DeHart via Flickr