Combat aircraft incursions to the west. An aircraft carrier battle group to the east. Beijing is striving to prove it can isolate Taiwan from “foreign intervention” – and break the island democracy’s spirit.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) keeps ramping up its rhetoric.
Beijing is boasting new military exercises prove “the island is surrounded from the east with an aircraft carrier task group and by land-based PLA forces on the west”.
The point of the manoeuvres was to show “the (People’s Liberation Army) is capable of surrounding the island of Taiwan, isolating its troops and leaving them nowhere to run and no chance to win if circumstances arise”.
The aggressive assertions relate to the deployment of the aircraft carrier Liaoning and its task force of five escorts to the east coast of the island democracy this week.
Simultaneously, the relentless probes of Taiwan’s airspace included a significant “push” by 12 fighters and three support aircraft.
As the drama unfolded, Washington sent the destroyer USS John S. McCain on yet another “freedom of navigation” passage of the disputed Taiwan Strait. At the same time, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and its escorts entered the South China Sea from the south.
“In a sense, every time Beijing has upped the bet, Washington has called it,” says Lowy Institute director and ANU Security College fellow Natasha Kassam.
“This carries significant risk, particularly of a miscommunication or an accident that escalates in the Taiwan Strait. But this balanced escalation could also be stabilising. If China is testing US resolve, Beijing appears to have – to some extent – an answer.”
Lines in the sand
Senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security Thomas Shugart says the use of gunboat diplomacy comes with risks.
And while it may look impressive, it’s not the whole story.
“A Chinese carrier operating east of Taiwan is not particularly valuable being used like that, as it could be quite vulnerable operating that far out – in (submarine) – infested deep water and beyond China’s integrated air defence umbrella,” Mr Shugart told US media.
According to Ms Kassam, such examples of China’s ambition have propelled Taiwan and the US closer together. Meanwhile, Washington’s persistent military presence and encouraging support appear to be working.
Kassam points to the recent “Two Sessions” of China’s National Congress. The idea of an aggressive “national unification law” aimed at Taiwan was floated. Ultimately, the Central Committee dropped it in favour of the usual “boilerplate language”.
“For now, China’s goal appears to be preventing Taiwan from declaring independence, rather than forcing unification,” she says.
“The US is ensuring that its commitment to Taiwan is a constant factor in Beijing’s thinking, rather than preparing for war. This makes the region more stable, not less.”
“Taiwan secessionists are rampant due to their illusion that countries like the US and Japan will support them if a situation arises, and the PLA is showing that it cannot only crack down Taiwan secessionists, but also let foreign interfering forces suffer consequences,” CCP-sanctioned naval commentator Shi Hong told the Global Times this week.
Meanwhile, Taipei’s democratically elected government responded by declaring their resolve to “fight to the end”.
“We are willing to defend ourselves without any questions, and we will fight the war if we need to fight the war,” Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters. “And if we need to defend ourselves to the very last day, we will defend ourselves to the very last day.”
He also said he was confident Washington would live up to its promises of support.
“The defence of Taiwan is our responsibility. We will try every way we can to improve our defence capability,” Mr Wu said.
“From my limited understanding of American decision-makers watching developments in this region, they clearly see the danger of the possibility of China launching an attack against Taiwan.”
Beijing, however, sought to emphasise the cost in lives and matériel any intervention would entail.
“The PLA’s aircraft carrier exercise is routine and aimed at comprehensively boosting its combat capability and against Taiwan secessionists rather than any specific country, but the US should understand that its warship activities on China’s doorstep will not win it any advantage with the PLA on guard,” the Global Times declared.
The Taiwan Strait has become the focus of significant activity since Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected as Taiwan’s President last year.
The number of Chinese incursions in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea have reached record levels in recent months. Now drones and warships have become regular additions to the deadly equation.
Military analysts believe it’s part of an effort to “test” the resolve of US President Joe Biden, as well as strain Taiwan’s morale. This week’s confluence of military drills was intended to demonstrate Beijing’s ability “to control and seal off foreign intervention when necessary”.
“Attacking from all directions makes the enemy difficult to defend since they have no idea where the main forces could come from,” Mr Shi told the Global Times.
“This tactic can isolate the island’s forces from foreign intervention and break Taiwan secessionists’ illusion that US or Japanese forces could come to their aid if circumstances arise.”
Taiwan, however, is not “secessionist”. It has never been a part of Communist China.
Instead, the Republic of China government fled mainland China to Taiwan during the 1949 revolution. That authoritarian regime has since evolved into a thriving democracy.
But Communist Beijing believes the island, which has changed ownership many times in recent centuries, is its “inherent” territory.
As such, it intends to continue increasing the grip of its military chokehold.
“(These) events are only a coincidence which will take place more and more often in the future as China’s aircraft carrier program advances,” Shi warns.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday relayed the Biden administration’s “great concern” at Beijing’s efforts to intimidate its neighbours – in particular Taipei.
“The United States maintains the capacity to resist any resort to force or any other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan,” Mr Price said.
Beijing, however, won’t have a bar of it.
“We will not allow US warships to gain any advantage on our doorstep,” Communist Party military commentator Wei Dongxu told Chinese state-run media.
He referred to the Liaoning aircraft carrier’s battle group as an example of China’s new military strength.
“The 10,000 ton-class Type 055 large destroyer cannot only provide the carrier group with strong air defence cover, but also use anti-ship and land-attack missiles and launch attacks together with the Liaoning’s J-15 fighter jets,” Mr Wei said.
PLA Navy spokesperson Senior Captain Gao Xiucheng said the Liaoning aircraft carrier task group was conducting “annually scheduled regular training”.
He also emphasised this was the first time the PLA Navy had conducted this “regular” exercise.
“The regular exercises by warplanes and warships are deterrents and warnings against Taiwan secessionists and foreign forces that are attempting to interfere in China’s internal affairs by sending the wrong signals to Taiwan secessionists,” he said.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel