A high-profile US visit to Taiwan has prompted a furious reaction from China. Large-scale military exercises have surrounded the islands. Missiles have flown over its territory.
But what we’ve seen so far is only Beijing’s reflexive reaction: a response made with whatever it had ready at the time.
And that, warn analysts, leaves the potential for escalation wide open.
“My expectation is this is not a 24-hour incident, that we will see China react over a period of days and weeks and maybe months,” says high-profile China analyst Bonnie Glaser.
The German Martial Fund think-tank researcher says everything depends on Chairman Xi Jinping‘s conclusions about Washington’s intentions – and Taiwan’s President Tsai’s policies.
And President Tsai – while pulling her punches when it comes to Taiwan’s military response – is lashing out verbally against Beijing.
An “evil neighbour” is showing off its power, she told local media this weekend, adding that “China is arbitrarily destroying the world’s most frequently used waterway with military exercises”.
View from above
Commercially-available satellite photos reveal the broad scope of China’s intimidation.
They show its most modern warships probing Taiwan’s territorial waters and causing commercial shipping to divert around designated “live fire” zones. Six zones are strategically placed around the island to interfere with vessels attempting to approach Taiwan’s major ports.
Meanwhile, social media posts purport to show Chinese military drones and missiles overflying Taiwan’s airspace.
“I think that this is the new normal,” former CIA analyst John Culver told a Center for Strategic and International Studies discussion last week.
“The Chinese want to show … that a line has been crossed by the speaker’s visit. If it persists with or widens military exercises, or starts flying aircraft over Taiwan, then that raises this definition of a new normal.”
Flinders University international relations expert Dr Michael Sullivan says we are seeing Beijing’s long-planned response to just such a high-profile visit to Taiwan.
“China is demonstrating that the era of US military primacy in the Strait is over,” he says. “The crisis will end at a time and in a manner of China’s choosing.”
And that depends as much on the home front as it does any international reaction.
“Most observers of the military exercises, which will continue for at least a few days, interpret them correctly as largely a ‘performance’ for domestic consumption,” Dr Sullivan says.
“The Communist Party is demonstrating its military power to satisfy Chinese social media demands for the government to respond forcibly.”
Glaser agrees that everything depends on what unfolds during the coming week.
“The relationship is in a very bad place right now,” she says. ”We don’t know what else they will do. We just don’t know if this is just a temporary thing.”
Blockade by any other name
“Multiple batches of Communist planes and ships are conducting activities around the Taiwan Strait, some of which crossed the median line”, the defence ministry in Taipei announced in a statement.
Ships are turning away from Taiwan and the live warheads being “tested” around it. Some international airlines are cancelling flights rather than attempting to divert them.
“Our government & military are closely monitoring China’s military exercises & information warfare operations, ready to respond as necessary,” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen added in a tweet.
“I call on the international community to support democratic Taiwan & halt any escalation of the regional security situation.”
Washington, however, has been cautious not to escalate the situation. But it is attempting to call out what it calls Beijing’s attempts to distort history.
“The Chinese can go a long way to taking the tensions down simply by stopping these provocative military exercises and ending the rhetoric,” says Whitehouse spokesman John Kirby.
He added that Beijing was attempting to alter the 73-year-old history of Taiwan developing itself into a self-ruled island democracy. “We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side”, he said.
But China is determined to display to full effect just how much its military has advanced since a similar confrontation over Taiwan in 1995.
“Beijing is testing its battle plans for an invasion of Taiwan with live-fire exercises effectively enveloping the island,” says Dr Sullivan.
He says the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1995-96 saw the PLA similarly ‘test fire’ missiles over Taiwan. But the Chinese Government was forced to back down after the US sailed the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Independence and their battle groups through the Taiwan Straits.
But almost three decades of determined military modernisation and expansion may have ruled out any similar response.
“It is unlikely that President Biden will risk an aircraft carrier or two to end the Fourth Taiwan Straits Crisis,” he concludes. ”The Chinese government is demonstrating that the era of the US calling the shots militarily in the Taiwan Straits is over.”
“Our position is legitimate, reasonable and lawful. Our measures are resolute, strong and proportionate. Our military drills are open, transparent and professional, which are in line with our domestic law, international law and common international practice, with an aim of warning those perpetrators and disciplining the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces,” Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Saturday night.
Beijing has a clear message to sell through the military display, says Dr Sullivan.
“They were not hastily arranged,” he adds. “China’s state-run media has well-prepared packages of the Dong Feng (DF) ballistic missile launches and accompanying maps of no-go areas circling Taiwan which are designed for local and western media consumption, and YouTube.”
And that’s why the West much be careful in how it frames the confrontation, warns Taiwan National Chengchi University political scientist Lev Nachman.
“The PLA would love those in Taiwan and abroad (namely the United States) to declare this the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, since this would reflect that its goal of making us fearful and intimidated had worked,” he writes.
So far, he says, China’s reaction has been “predictable”.
“While the jury is still out on whether the benefits of Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan outweigh the costs, most experts predicted that China would retaliate using some sort of increased military threat,” he says.
“China also announced the drills ahead of time — if only by 48 hours or so. By announcing in advance where these drills would take place, it gave Taiwan time to physically and mentally prepare. When the drills began, no one was surprised because we knew they were going to happen.”
Nachman adds there’s no evidence yet that this military posturing will continue.
“These military drills are not going to last beyond another week — and are not a non-stop affair,” he says. “If China wanted an escalating crisis that put continual pressure on Taiwan, I do not think we here in Taiwan would have the luxury of knowing when it would end, nor would the end be so soon.”
“While I recognise that the following days may prove me wrong, for now we don’t need the rhetorically charged term of Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis to describe what is happening today.”
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