By Avantika Deb
On 15 June, China flew 28 military aircraft, including fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers, into Taiwanese airspace, also referred to as the air defence identification zone (ADIZ). This was the largest incursion by China into the ADIZ since the Taiwanese government started regularly tracking and publishing information about incursions last year. The incident came right after NATO leaders issued a communiqué expressing concern over increasing instability and challenges posed by China’s growing influence. Prior to that, leaders of the G7 nations pledged in a meeting to work together to counter China’s “non-market” economic policies and also criticised it for several issues, including its human rights record. The leaders also reiterated the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
Incidents such as this have become increasingly frequent as Beijing continues to build pressure on Taiwan, over which it claims full sovereignty, although the two have been ruled separately for over seven decades. Taipei has recorded repeated incursions by China’s air force in recent months, mostly in the southwestern part of the ADIZ near the Pratas Islands. In April this year, at least 25 Chinese warplanes flew into the zone in response to an announcement by Taiwan’s biggest ally the United States (US), which stated that Washington) will make it easier for their officials to meet their Taiwanese counterparts.
Since the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to office in 2016, China seems to have stepped up its aggressive posturing, primarily because she is largely viewed as pursuing a unique Taiwanese identity and pro-independence agenda separate from that of mainland China. Her administration has always had a close relationship with the US; President Joe Biden has also pledged closer relations with Taipei after entering office despite the absence of formal diplomatic ties. Further causing concern for Chinese authorities is the fact that Tsai has consistently pushed for more political clout and taken active measures towards building a more independent and resilient Taiwan. Marking the territory’s National Day on 10 October 2020, Tsai promised to increase the defence budget, enhance the military’s capabilities by focusing on modernisation, and most notably, increase its capacity for asymmetric warfare which is very important given the vast size of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Her administration has not only purchased billions of dollars worth of arms from the US, but also encouraged the revival of domestic weapons manufacturing, including locally-made submarines, military vehicles and aircraft. The military has had a poor image in Taiwan owing to 38 years of martial law following the Second World War, but Tsai has succeeded in changing this perception by regularly visiting troops to raise morale and investing large amounts of capital towards modernisation of the armed forces.
China has maintained its stance that it will never tolerate attempts to seek independence or foreign intervention when it comes to Taiwan; understandably, there have been fears both at home and abroad regarding a possible invasion and annexation of Taiwan. However, some analysts have taken a more measured approach. A possible explanation is that the escalation in China’s posturing may well be reflective of its deteriorating relationship and increased threat perceptions vis-a-vis the US, and not Taiwan. Taiwan is an important strategic partner for the US to maintain influence in the Asia-Pacific; the struggle between Beijing and Washington to assert dominance over Taipei will inevitably continue in the medium term. In fact, China’s latest incursion occurred on the same day that a US Navy carrier group entered the disputed South China Sea on a routine mission.
China’s aggressive tone and the increasing number of PLA aircraft incursions do not necessarily indicate a looming invasion as the situation has remained unchanged for decades. An attempt to seize Taiwan carries major risk factors for China; they would not only have to overcome geographical obstacles with heavy equipment and a large number of military personnel, they are also likely to face strong resistance from the Taiwanese military, even more so if its allies the US and Japan deploy their armed forces. There would be too many unknown variables for China to deal with. Another notable fact pointed out by experts is that President Xi Jinping’s rhetoric is no different from his predecessors. Every Chinese leader has stated that reunification is inevitable. But ultimately, even China’s official goal seems to be “peaceful development of Cross-Strait relations” as stated in their Five Year Plan. Most importantly, the impact of an all-out conflict would have a regional impact that would be too catastrophic and destabilising for China to handle. However, China will still continue to pose a threat for Taiwan with regular airspace and naval incursions. In addition to this, Beijing’s ongoing policy of delegitimizing Taipei and pushing it out of the international community such as the United Nations and the International Civil Aviation Organisation will also continue.
Avantika Deb is an India-based political and security risk analyst covering East Asia and Oceania.