Dueling U.S., China Military Drills Highlight Rising Taiwan Risk

Dueling U.S., China Military Drills Highlight Rising Taiwan Risk

Taiwan is the focus of rival displays of might by the world’s major military powers this week, with record sorties by Chinese military planes off one coast and flotillas of U.S. and allied warships off another. 

The 56 People’s Liberation Army aircraft that entered Taiwan’s air-defense-identification zone Monday represented the largest such incursion to date, and followed a similar record over the weekend. The flights, which drew a rebuke from the Biden administration, followed an unusually large exercise by American allies with three aircraft carriers sailing in training exercises in the nearby East Philippine Sea.

China has steadily ramped up flights in Taiwan’s ADIZ in recent years as President Xi Jinping seeks to deter Washington and Taipei from forging closer ties, fueling calls for a more coordinated international response. The latest uptick in PLA Air Force patrols, which coincided with China’s weeklong National Day holiday, appeared intended to signal Beijing’s resolve to control the air space between its coast and Taiwan in the event of any conflict. 

Dueling U.S., China Military Drills Highlight Rising Taiwan Risk

“The flights are sending a political message in response to actions in the region,” Shu Hsiao-huang, assistant research fellow at the Taipei-based Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said Monday. “U.S. and U.K. forces held exercises in the Philippine Sea in September and international military exercises scheduled for October in the Indo-Pacific, so China is responding by expressing its displeasure at the international situation.”

The allied naval exercises in the Western Pacific were tied to the presence of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first British carrier strike group to visit the region since 1997. The ship and its flotilla, including U.S. and Dutch vessels, passed south of Taiwan for exercises in the South China Sea after earlier drilling with American and Japanese vessels southwest of Okinawa.

The drills were among several gestures toward Taiwan by the Biden administration and its allies in recent days, that included White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s demand Monday that China halt “provocative military activity near” the island. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi separately told reporters Tuesday the country was discussing “contingencies” for disputes related to Taiwan, while French Senator Alain Richard is leading a delegation to Taipei. 

The international support for Taiwan adds to a charged domestic political atmosphere in China, where Xi must project strength as he seeks to tamp down economic risks ahead of a key party meeting in November that could pave the way for him to secure a third five-year term as leader. Beijing views Taiwan as its territory, even though the Communist Party has never controlled the island, and has asserted the right to use military force to prevent its formal independence. 

On Tuesday, China accused the U.S. of sending “extremely erroneous and irresponsible” statements supporting Taiwan. Past U.S. actions, such as selling arms to Taiwan, have harmed U.S.-China relations and destabilized the region, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement Tuesday.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who argues Taiwan is already a sovereign nation, called for the world’s democracies to rally to her government’s defense in an article published Tuesday in Foreign Affairs magazine. She said China gaining control over the island would show that authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy in the global contest of values.

“As countries increasingly recognize the threat that the Chinese Communist Party poses, they should understand the value of working with Taiwan,” she wrote. “And they should remember that if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system.”

Dueling U.S., China Military Drills Highlight Rising Taiwan Risk

Still, there were signs that Beijing and Washington were trying to manage their disputes, in the wake of the release of detainees arrested as part of a global battle over Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Corp. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was expected to meet top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Switzerland this week, the South China Morning Post reported Tuesday, citing people familiar with the matter. 

Drew Thompson, visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said the increase in fly-bys by Beijing could be designed for domestic consumption. 

“It is clearly an escalation in their political warfare effort, and it is not necessarily tied to any one factor, but perhaps the overall cross-Strait situation as Beijing sees it,” Thompson said. “We cannot rule out the possibility that these large-scale sorties are intended to send a political message to key audiences in China, not just Taiwan, which is why the anniversary of the PRC’s founding was chosen.”

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