Taipei, Taiwan – Beijing has escalated the number and intensity of military drills around Taiwan in recent weeks, making risky manoeuvres that appear set to test the political waters in Taipei and Washington while signalling the mainland’s continuing animosity towards Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, who was re-elected in a landslide in January.
While China has long held military exercises in Taiwanese territorial waters and airspace, this month the People’s Liberation Army Airforce conducted a 36-hour endurance exercise. Just last week, China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning and a convoy of five warships sailed close to Taiwan through the Miyako Strait, according to Taiwanese media. In March there were reports of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) first-ever night mission.
The exercises have been “particularly aggressive,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “These are definitely intended to send messages of intimidation to Taiwan [and] test Taiwan’s air defences to see how long it takes them to identify that they are incoming to scramble the aircraft in response to see how well Taiwan’s pilots fly when they are intercepted.”
The PLAAF’s night mission in March crossed the median of the Taiwan Strait, an unofficial maritime border between Chinese and Taiwanese territory. China’s Communist Party claims sovereignty over Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, although it has never governed the democratically run island of 23 million.
The PLAAF conducted similar exercises in March 2019 for the first time in 20 years, said Glaser, but since then there have been several other exercises with more than two dozen aircraft involved.
The drills are politically significant for Taipei and Beijing, says Kharis Templeman, an adviser to Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
“Crossing the median line is an especially provocative manoeuvre because it violates a norm that has been in place since the 1950s, and it could lead very quickly to a dangerous confrontation in the air between ROC and PRC military aircraft,” he said. Republic of China (ROC) is the official name for Taiwan; PRC stands for the People’s Republic of China.
He said in recent months exercises have increased in quantity and qualitatively as Beijing continues to ramp up the political pressure on Taiwan.
The exercises also come as Taiwan and its unofficial ally, the US, have seen their defensive capabilities affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected sailors in both navies.
“One thing we’ve been paying more attention to in the current situation is China seems to be testing the water and see how much they can do to threaten the government of Taiwan and see the potential response from the US,” said Yao-Yuan Yeh, the assistant coordinator of the Taiwan and East Asia Studies Program at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota.
This week Taiwan announced it would delay the first half of its annual Han Kuan war games, which each northern spring simulate an invasion from China, although it has continued to intercept jets and shadow Chinese aircraft when they approach its airspace, according to Stanford’s Templeman.
After the US air force conducted a long-distance exercise over Taiwan in February, US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, recalled all strategic bombers from Guam. The military base is the temporary home of USS Theodore, which was forced to dock following a coronavirus outbreak on board.
The aircraft carrier has previously conducted freedom of navigation exercises near Taiwan in the South China Sea and Sea of Japan.
Glaser said the military exercises are most likely an attempt to punish Taiwan for what Beijing has seen as a series of provocative actions, including a trip by Vice President-elect William Lai to Washington in February that clashed with long-standing unspoken rules governing visits by Taiwanese leaders.
While not yet inaugurated, Lai became the highest-ranking Taiwanese leader to visit the US since formal diplomatic ties were ended in 1979.
The Third Strait Crisis, which saw China fire missiles into Taiwanese waters, was purportedly triggered by a trip by Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to the US in 1995 shortly before he won Taiwan’s first direct democratic election in 1996.
Relations between Taiwan and China, however, have been on the decline since 2016 when Tsai was first elected president as the leader of the pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Tsai and the DPP have taken a more pro-Taiwan stance than their main competitor, the Kuomintang (KMT), but they have never taken steps to formalise Taiwan’s independence from China.
Taiwan is still officially known as the Republic of China, whose government retreated to the one-time Japanese colony after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communist Party.
Stanford’s Templeman says Beijing believes Tsai did not express enough support for Beijing’s “One China” principle or “the position that both Taiwan and the mainland are part of China, that independence is not an option for Taiwan, and that both sides of the Strait have a duty to work toward eventual unification.”
“Beijing indicated very quickly after her inauguration that Tsai needed to do and say even more to reassure Beijing that she was not a closet independence supporter, or else they would cut off communication and start pressuring her administration – and they did,” he said. “The two sides have been in a cold standoff ever since.”
Soft power surge
Despite a steady loss in diplomatic allies, Taiwan has seen a surge in soft power from its effective handling of coronavirus and its so-called “mask diplomacy,” according to Glaser, which has seen it donate millions of face masks to countries in need, among other initiatives.
Taiwan has also had just 426 cases of the disease as of April 23 and has not resorted to widespread lockdown measures, leading to calls for it to return as an observer at the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, where it lost its seat several years ago.
“We’ve had Taiwan telling the world it has controlled the spread of the coronavirus and demonstrating that it has a lot of soft power creating this bumper sticker ‘Taiwan can help’,” Glaser said. “I think China is very unhappy about that too.”
China, meanwhile, is bracing for its own domestic drama as it prepares for the economic effect of coronavirus after tens of millions of people were forced into quarantine, providing another excuse for Taiwan could remain in its crosshairs for the foreseeable future, said Yeh.
“Coronavirus is definitely going to have a huge hit on the Chinese economy, they have been claiming they are going back to normal and waiting for the second surge of coronavirus,” Yeh said, which may force the Communist Party to look for a scapegoat to divert domestic anger. “What we are worried apart is whether China is using these military drills to divert attention from domestic problems.”