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A New Taiwan Strait Crisis? Muddied Waters In The South China Sea – Analysis

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Over the past month, the Republic of China (ROC) has sounded the alarm over People’s Liberation Army Airforce (PLAAF) incursion. A record number of Communist Chinese aircraft have entered Taiwan’s air defense zone over four days, over 150 by one count. Taiwan’s defense minister Chiu Kuo-cheng stated that the current incursions represent the greatest conflict between Taiwan and China in 40 years, likely referring to the US and United Nations’ abandonment of Taiwan’s recognized sovereignty in the 1970s in favor of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan represents the last missing piece of the PRC’s One-China policy, creating a bleak outlook for any future acceptance of an independent Taiwan. Every paramount leader of the PRC, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, has stated that the fate of Taiwan is one of unification, at whatever the cost. So, what is so shocking about the current situation, and what can be expected?

Acts of coercion and restraint have been a regular theme in the relationship between Taiwan and China, but recently, the evidence shows a frightening increase in means in the last year. In March 2019, for the first time in over 20 years, two J-11 fighters flew through the Taiwan Strait’s median line. The following September, two J-11s and multiple other PLAAF aircraft passed through Taiwanese airspace. In April of this year, dozens of H-K bombers performed a 9-hour long aerial bombing exercise after Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and US President Joe Biden publicly stated their resolve to ensure the security of Taiwan. 

What is different now?

The closest comparable situation to what we saw in early October is the 1995-1996 second Taiwan-Strait Crisis. In response to democratically held elections in Taipei, China fired missiles around the island and increased naval movements in the Taiwan Strait. Bound by the Taiwan Relations Act, the US subsequently dispatched naval battle groups with two aircraft carriers, ultimately defusing the situation when China stood down in response. On the aggregate, the situation appears similar. China is leveraging its power in the region and pressuring Taiwan, questioning Taiwan’s national status. Along with multiple allies, the US has formed a naval contingent to push back against China’s aggression. That said, the disaggregate paints a far starker image in the last month. 

After 9/11, the US changed its military orientation to fit the combat needs of its Global War on Terror in the Middle East and South Asia. But the PRC never forgot the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis and has since prepared for a more favorable outcome in the future, one that we may see play out soon. The PRC realized that it must be willing to defend itself from a US attack, likely from an aircraft carrier. Since then, China has increased its military spending and has invested in the weaponry necessary to damage or even sink a modern aircraft carrier. China’s strategy is one of deterrence in that it would require the US to take on a much more significant military role if Taiwan is to be defended. The threat of losing an aircraft carrier places a substantial burden on the US. While the US has an extensive military reach and many Pacific allies, China has a regional geographic advantage. If China can protect itself from aircraft carriers and US-sponsored regional allies, the US can do little to defend Taiwan.

In 2014 the PRC watched as Russia’s “little green men” took Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in a matter of hours with, to this day, no significant repercussions from the US, NATO, or the wider world. American domestic unrest, the international community’s COVID-19 fallout, a robust economy, and a growing military driven by Asia-Pacific security goals help pave the way for Xi to demand Taiwan return to the fold. 

China shows significant increases in military spending. Since 1996, China has had double-digit annual growth rates of military expenditures. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has gone from having no modern submarines in 1995 to almost 50 now. Additionally, the PLAN has increased its modern destroyers from fewer than five to 45 and has also developed over 400 warships. The world should expect China to maintain a fleet of about 530 warships and submarines by 2030. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (CV-16), just became fully operational in 2015. China has now put a second carrier to sea and is in the process of building a third. While the PLAN’s carriers are hardly comparable to those of the US navy, they are suitable for bullying their smaller neighbors. The numbers of PLAN ships are not small, nor should be US and Taiwanese unease. 

Why be concerned?

As the situation stands, the most significant concern for the PRC, Taiwan, the US, and the world is an accident that will result in the loss of life. The sharp increases in sorties by PLAAF, Taiwan’s response, and the US-led battle group entering the region are all causes for alarm. A misfire or rushed decision from top leadership to a junior officer pilot will cause the spark that ignites the sensitive region. The possibility of an accident is not so hard to believe. On October 7th, the US navy announced that one of its submarines collided with an unknown “object” in the South China Sea. Whatever the object’s identity does not matter, but how the US and China react does. For example, confusion over the Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident pushed the US to active war in Vietnam. In addition, when considering the nuclear capabilities of both the US and China, we must remember that there have been at least 22 known instances of potential nuclear misfires and other incidents. We cannot make the mistake of thinking a war of attrition or heightened nuclear concern is far off. The submarine collision may serve as the “bump” in the night for a larger monster.

In the past, the PRC has consistently pursued a one-country-two-systems proposal that would see the ROC’s democratic government remain intact while still placed under the PRC’s flag. Observing the PRC’s recent crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic system justifies the ROC’s distrust of such a policy. Even more so, Xi’s current rhetoric and increasingly aggressive military activities offer very little leeway for the democratic government in Taipei. 

Strategic Imperative

Despite what would be a major policy win for Xi, following his promotion to “president for life”, Taiwan holds a great strategic imperative for mainland China. Like a stationary aircraft carrier, Taiwan is parked 150 miles off China’s coastline. To put into perspective, Cuba is only 50 miles closer to the tip of Florida, making the cross-strait distance a drop in the bucket of the South China Sea that spans 1.5 million square miles. Based on its location, the PLA would be able to take ownership of the largest islet in the Spratly Isles and would be in a position to pressure other states. Doing so would change the entire geopolitical establishment in the Indo-Pacific, increasing the security dilemma in the region.

Reliance on the US has been a core element of Taiwan’s national defense strategy. During the Cold War, US nuclear-capable aircraft, ships, and missiles were regularly stationed in Taiwan to apply support for Chaing Kai-shek, constrain a revisionist Mao, and place military pressure on the USSR’s eastern coast. Despite massive US military hardware sales, multiple training programs, regular wargames, and one misinformed tweet by US Senator John Cornyn, there have not been any officially recognized US military troops stationed in Taiwan since 1979. Recent reports of US special forces training Taiwanese soldiers are not necessarily news but acknowledge a regional fact.  Taiwan has received robust military assistance from the US over the past several decades. In August, the Biden administration issued $750 million dollars in military aid to Taipei. While not unlike previous administrations, the timing could not be more prudent. 

A Note for Alarm

The current situation in the South China Sea would be by far the greatest geopolitical concern since January 6th, 2021. That said, all countries involved should be aware of the repercussions of brinkmanship. Much of the US public is unaware of Taiwan’s multifaceted history and its relationship to the PRC. Like Taiwan, the US has an intricate relationship with the PRC. As each state’s largest trading partner, a purposeful rise in tensions between the two superpowers would be disastrous. China and the US are both members of the UN security council and are two of nine countries that possess nuclear weapons. Additionally, China makes around 97 percent of all antibiotics used in the US. An educated bipartisan response must take shape in the US over warmongering. War is never an impossibility, and its consideration must be handled with caution. 

In essence, what we are currently seeing in the Taiwan Strait should be predictable yet terrifying. With China’s growing political, military, economic, and territorial influence, Taiwan falling prey to the PRC appears to be only a matter of time. What the US chooses to do from now on will be key to understanding what its foreign policy will look like in the next 50 years. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have called the role of the US as the hegemon and its responsibilities to its allies into question. Under current conditions, China is acting as a power opportunist, filling a void in the Asia-Pacific, created either by the US or through sheer coercion. What China is doing in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait is a manifestation of its national development that has taken place since the passing of Mao. The US must stop pretending and start thinking clearly.  

*Matt Ellis, PhD Student, Political Science, Purdue University

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