China threatens war as Joe Biden continues the outreach to Taiwan
Over the weekend, China sent large numbers of military aircraft into the southwestern portion of the Taiwan air defense identification zone, near the strategic Pratas Islands, which guard the southern approach to the Taiwan Strait. The Saturday demonstration of air power was provocative, including nuclear capable bombers and swift fighters used in offensive operations. Though the Chinese planes stayed in international airspace, Beijing appeared to deliver hostile messages to Taipei. The Sunday flight was the twentieth Chinese air incursion in less than a month.
The air exercises also sent a warning to President Biden. It did not take long for his team to push back. The State Department issued a statement calling on China to “cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue” with Taiwan. It declared the United States “commitment to Taiwan is rock solid.”
Perhaps most significantly, the statement mentioned the robust but often ignored “Six Assurances” of the Reagan era. John Tkacik, a retired foreign service officer who served in both Beijing and Taipei, told me the pledge of Biden with the “Six Assurances” is diplomatese for “the United States does not accept Chinese claims to sovereignty over Taiwan.”
Washington also responded in a powerfully symbolic way. The United States Navy Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group entered the South China Sea to promote “freedom of the seas.” China claims almost the entire body of water as its own “blue national soil” even though almost every other country considers it part of the global commons.
China, which has never exercised sovereign functions over Taiwan, claims the island as one of its provinces. Taking control of the Republic of China, which is the formal name of Taiwan, is believed to be the highest foreign policy objective of Beijing, which now appears like it is preparing to use force. Amendments to the Chinese national defense law, already effective for this new year, take powers from the State Council, which administers the civilian central government, and then hand them over to the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party. Included in the transferred powers is authority to mobilize the entire population of China.
Xi Jinping, the aggressive Chinese ruler, this month told his military to be ready for war “at any second.” His generals and admirals did not need to be told. They have been making their “military diplomacy” the policy of China, which is fast becoming a military state. So Washington should be prepared to defend Taiwan as the air exercises signal that China is about to provoke a crisis. Chinese leaders often test new American presidents with some of its military exercises in their peripheral waters.
Back in spring 2001, a Chinese jet flew dangerously close to an unarmed American Navy reconnaissance plane, causing a fatal collision over the South China Sea. Starting in winter 2009, Chinese vessels harassed two unarmed American Navy reconnaissance vessels in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea. One of those incidents was so serious that it constituted an attack on the United States, or in other words, an act of war. In both sets of incidents, the reaction from Washington was insufficient, which has therefore allowed Beijing to continue its bellicose ways.
Chinese leaders did not test Donald Trump during his term, perhaps due to fears of his unpredictability. Xi looks like he is going after Biden, as it is clear Chinese leaders think, or at least thought, they could bully the new American president. How do we know that? The derisive comments of Di Dongsheng, a professor at Renmin University, were recorded and publicly circulated around China. Di basically claimed that China would be able to determine outcomes in Washington if Trump lost the election.
Japanese leaders were worried about the departure of Trump. Yasuhide Nakayama, the Japanese defense minister, had advised Biden last month that Taiwan should be a “red line” for the United States. Japanese officials know a thing or two about what militaristic regimes can do, and they now see with China perilous trends reminiscent of imperial Japan in the 1930s, when uniformed officers took over the government in Tokyo.
But the Taiwan policy of Biden is shaping up to be resolute. In a move that surprised observers, his transition team invited the top ranking Taiwanese representative in Washington, Bikhim Hsiao, to the inauguration last week. Her presence ended four decades of shunning Taiwan at the ceremony. It continued the outreach of the last administration to Taipei.
With Washington engaged with Taiwan, it seems China no longer wields a veto over American policy toward the island. Beijing, with its shows of air power, has now made its displeasure known. At the moment, most every observer thinks Xi is just huffing and puffing over Taiwan. Yet regimes that say they want war almost always will find themselves in one.
Gordon Chang is a columnist and the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” You can follow his updates online on Twitter at @GordonGChang.