Beijing has sent a none too subtle “signal” to the new Biden administration to take a step back from former President Donald Trump’s hard ball tactics against China.
On the weekend, a bevy of Chinese military aircraft entered airspace close to Taiwan, an independent and democratic nation that Beijing has pledged to take over – be that by agreement or invasion.
Taiwan’s military said four fighter jets, eight bombers and an anti-submarine aircraft crossed the midpoint in the Taiwan Strait between the two countries and flew through its south western air defence identification zone (ADIZ) on Saturday. A further 15 Chinese aircraft did the same on Sunday.
China’s Global Times newspaper dismissed the sorties as “likely routine operations”. But an editorial in the same publication warned that, “sooner or later, these fighters will appear over the island of Taiwan”.
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ADIZs aren’t territorial air space – this usually extends only around 12 kilometres from land. Rather they cover a much larger area around a country’s coast where any aircraft is asked to identify itself.
International law is not broken by entering an ADIZ without permission; however, to do so is deliberately provocative.
The Chinese move saw Taiwan’s air force deployed.
“Airborne alert sorties had been tasked, radio warnings issued and air defence missile systems deployed to monitor the activity,” the country’s defence ministry said.
Just days into the Biden presidency and Taiwan is turning into the first hot button international issue for the US.
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THE THORNY ISSUE FOR THE US AND CHINA
The US has long acquiesced to Beijing’s “one China” policy that says individual countries cannot have official diplomatic relations with both it and Taiwan.
Most countries get around this by having other forms of relations with Taiwan, such as trade offices which act as de facto embassies. It has also sold the nation a wealth of weapons although it isn’t committed to defend the island should China invade.
However, the Trump White House had angered the Government of Xi Jinping by further deepening relations with Taiwan.
A new weapons deal was struck with the nation and a number of officials visited the capital Taipei and met with officials from the government of President Tsai Ing-wen.
In the dying days of the Trump presidency, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially axed many rules that had barred contact between American and Taiwanese officials, saying to not do so was an “attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing”.
Since Mr Biden took office, China has announced sanctions against several American politicians, many of whom had played an active role in talking to Taiwanese officials.
Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, told the New York Times that Beijing’s forays into Taiwan’s air defence region may not have been explicitly timed to be a warning to the US over the island nation, but it could be seen as one nonetheless.
“Certainly the operation is both militarily expedient in terms of training and experience but also a very useful political signal to not only Taiwan but of course the new Biden administration,” he said.
US ‘ROCK SOLID’ ON TAIWAN
However, if China was hoping the US would abandon Taiwan, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
On Saturday, Ned Price, a spokesman for the US State Department, chided Beijing for its “ongoing attempts to intimidate … Taiwan”.
“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives,” he said.
Mr Price said the US’ backing of Taiwan was “rock solid”. Arms sales, he said, would also continue.
Taiwan’s foreign minister welcomed the US’ support in the face of “Beijing’s ongoing coercion”.
Yasuhiro Matsuda, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo, told Japanese newspaper Nikkei that the State Department statement was a “strong signal” to Beijing.
“This was a message by the Biden administration to make crystal clear to China that it is not compromising on the Taiwan issue.”
There have been other moves by the US side.
Bi-khim Hsiao, Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador to the US, was invited to Joe Biden’s inauguration – a move which hasn’t occurred since 1979.
“Democracy is our common language, and freedom is our common objective,” Ms Hsiao said in a message on Twitter.
On Sunday, a slew of ships led by the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt also sailed through parts of the South China Sea, much of which Beijing – contrary to international law – claims as its own.
While the aircraft carrier was not close to Taiwan, it was another sign that the new administration was not about to remove itself from the region.
A Global Times editorial on the weekend lashed the leaders of Taiwan and the US and said the situation across the straits was “doomed to deteriorate” if the Biden administration did not step back from Mr Pompeo’s “extreme operations”.
“The interaction among the Chinese mainland, the US and the island of Taiwan has been broken in all directions and is difficult to repair,” it reads.
“It is at the least that the (Peoples’ Liberation Army) fighters will fly to the southwest airspace of the island. Sooner or later, these fighters will appear over the island of Taiwan.”
SUBTLE CHANGE OF LANGUAGE
However, Chinese commentators have noted a subtle change in language from Team Biden.
The statement from the State Department explicitly referenced a series of diplomatic agreements concerning Taiwan that had been thrashed out over many years by Beijing and Washington DC; agreements that limit what support the US can give the nation.
“The new US administration seems willing to keep a certain ambiguity on the Taiwan question, which provides the possibility for China and the US to form a level of tacit understanding,” Li Haidong, an international relations academic at China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times.
But for many of the so-called Wolf Warrior diplomats in Beijing who are determined to take Taiwan despite it never being under Communist rule, a return to the pre-Trump status quo may not be nearly enough to placate them.