As tensions continue to escalate between China and Taiwan, the question of war is brought ever closer. At the beginning of last month, China sent a record number of military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence zone, marking the largest ever incursion. While such incursions do frequently happen, the scale and volume of the latest military manoeuvres caught many off guard, including Taiwan’s leadership. The type of war planes used included anti-submarine planes and bombers. Many fear this lends to a broader narrative that China is moving closer to an invasion of Taiwan.
With China emerging as a global power in recent years, it has become increasingly assertive in its claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. Chinese president, Xi Jinping has made reunification with Taiwan one of the country’s key goals, declaring that “reunification” with Taiwan “must be fulfilled”. In response, Taiwan said its future lay in the hands of its people.
What’s behind the most recent escalation?
The timing of China’s recent actions come off the back of a chaotic US-troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a shifting US foreign policy focus towards the Indo-Pacific. Last month, US President, Joe Biden, virtually joined leaders of ASEAN member states where they discussed regional and international challenges. During the meeting, Biden vowed that the United States would stand with them in defending freedom of the seas and democracy and called China’s actions towards Taiwan “coercive” and a threat to peace and stability.
The US posturing has gone beyond mere rhetoric with the US conducting several “large-scale” military exercises in the South China Sea. Alongside this, the UK, US and Australia announced a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific, in what was largely seen as an effort to counter China. The AUKUS alliance will see Australia armed with a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). Having submarines stationed in Australia is critical to US influence in the region, analysts say.
The deal brings geopolitical significance with China facing a powerful new defence alliance in the Indo-Pacific. The West has grown increasingly concerned about China’s growing involvement in the contested territories on the South China Sea.
Due to Beijing’s unprecedented threats and provocations, Taipei is rapidly reforming its armed forces and modernizing key parts of its military. The Overall Defense Concept (ODC) is s based on the strategic realization that Taiwan’s military cannot win a conventional war against China in the Taiwan Strait. As such, Taipei aims to adjust the country’s military’s posture, focusing instead on asymmetric defence capabilities.
Taiwan’s existing defensive capabilities are limited, with shortfalls in active and reserve personnel numbers, equipment and training. Despite regular arms supplies worth billions from the US, Taiwan is well behind China, both in terms of troop numbers and modernization. China’s official military budget alone is 16 times that of Taiwan’s. China is also in the process of building a third aircraft carrier while Taiwan has two operational submarines, which date back to the 1980s. Of China’s total 1 million-person ground force, 416,000 are in the Taiwan Strait area compared to Taiwan’s 88,000 personnel.
Role of the US
Tensions in the region are not limited to China and Taiwan. The other big player is the US. which adopts a policy of “strategic ambiguity”. Such a policy proposes a conditional response to secure U.S. interests in the event of a crisis in the area. While the US doesn’t recognise Taiwan as an independent sovereign state, it does provide economic and military support. The US remains Taiwan’s biggest source of military equipment. Last year US arms sales to Taiwan reached 5 billion dollars, while the Biden administration recently approved its first arms sale to Taiwan for $750 million worth of howitzers and high-tech munitions kits.
The Taiwan issue is at the heart of China’s relationship with the US. The US has long been a security guarantor against rising Chinese ambition in the region. In previous decades, these simulations would have prompted a swifter American response and checking of Chinese advances.
Many analysts view the uptick in Chinese military activity as merely performative, with China sending a message to US that there is a real cost to increased cooperation between Washington and Taipei. The big question for many is whether a Chinese invasion would prompt a military response from the US. If it doesn’t, it would call into question the US commitment to its Asia pacific partners and other countries around that world. There is sense from Chinese leaders that US power and appetite for military adventures is declining.
China continues to push the threshold under Xi Jinping without lunching into a full-scale war. Beijing’s aggressive military signalling and foreign policy posture is part of a broader coercive campaign designed to force reunification without a direct military confrontation. Military experts define this as a “grey zone strategy”, with China aiming to test the Tsai government’s resolve. There has been a steady erosion of the status quo that existed around the island towards a reconfiguration that the balance of power is shifting towards China. As things continue to escalate, concern is growing as to what China’s next steps may be.