News agencies have reported China sending large groups of fighters into Taiwanese airspace and the Chinese are testing U.S. President Joe Biden.
Fewer agencies also reported that an American aircraft carrier group sailed between Taiwan and the Philippines into the South China Sea. Yet, American warships must have sailed first: it takes time to get there from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific bases.
What China did was not illegal. The Chinese aircraft only entered Taiwan’s unilaterally declared “Air Defence Identification Zone,” which is not sovereign Taiwanese territory. They were responding to the U.S. naval presence, and the actions of both are legal and symbolic. Nobody is going to get hurt this time – but there will be a next time.
China’s leaders have claimed Taiwan is a renegade province of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), not a separate country.
Most did nothing about it because the U.S. Navy controlled the Pacific Ocean to the Chinese low-tide mark, but President Xi Jin-ping has made Taiwan his project.
Xi declared reunification of Taiwan an “inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.”
The history is tangled. Chinese settlers conquered Taiwan’s inhabitants and colonized the island after the Spanish and Portuguese began settling the Americas.
The island remained under Chinese rule until 1895, when it passed into Japanese hands — and briefly fell under Beijing’s control in 1945.
When the Chinese civil war ended in a Communist victory in 1949, the defeated Nationalist government and army retreated to Taiwan, protected by the U.S. Navy. Two-million heavily armed refugees made short work of local people with different priorities.
The Nationalist dictatorship lasted four decades but, by the 1990s, the island became a prosperous democracy.
To avoid enraging Beijing, Taiwan never officially declared independence but it has been independent for 70 years.
What’s the problem?
President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favours independence for Taiwan but never says so because the PRC threatens war.
Things could have continued like that except Xi Jin-ping’s is determined to settle matters and shift balance of military power.
There are 23-million Taiwanese; mainland Chinese outnumber them 60-to-one. U.S. military superiority once made up for that, but China’s military are no longer low-tech and there is no longer a U.S. alliance with Taiwan or even an explicit U.S. military guarantee of Taiwan’s separate status.
The U.S. strives to maintain uncertainty about what it would do, if China invaded Taiwan.
However, the likelihood it would risk war with China declines as the probability the U.S. could win a naval war so close to the Chinese coast shrinks.
It looks like the same old game played for the past 70 years.
But China’s threats have more military credibility, there’s a more reckless player in Beijing — and, if China did invade Taiwan, the U.S. might still decide it had to fight in the end.
Ten years ago, there was little risk of a disastrous miscalculation on either side. Now, there is.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).