Location: Taiwan Straits
Parties involved: Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen, People’s Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), United States.
On 06/04/2023 Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen visited the United States to meet with the speaker of the United States House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy. China responded to the meeting with three days of military drills, lasting from 08/04/2023 until 11/04/2023. The country used multiple warships, including one aircraft carrier, and over 200 warplane flights, as reported by Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense. During the drills China simulated sealing off Taiwan.
On 12/04/2023 Taiwan’s Ministry of Transportation and Communication stated that China planned to impose a no-fly zone close to Taiwan between April 16 and April 18, from 9:00 to 14:00 each day. According to China, the no-fly zone is needed for aerospace activities. Taiwan feared that the no-fly zone would lead to major travel disruptions across the region and was also concerned about the location of the no-fly zone, which would fall within the air defense identification zone of Taiwan. Eventually, the no-fly zone was reduced to a closure on April 16, from 9:30 to 9:57.
In response to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its intensifying military drills around Taiwan, on 11/04/2023 the U.S. and the Philippines began three weeks of the largest joint military drills ever. China’s foreign ministry responded to the drills by stating that both countries “must not interfere in South China Sea disputes.”
Analysis and Implications:
China claims that Taiwan is a part of China and maintains that it must accept reunification, even with force if no peaceful resolution can be reached. Beijing regularly accuses politicians inside of Taiwan as ‘separatists forces’ for pursuing independence of Taiwan and moving away from China. Beijing frequently violates Taiwanese airspace and the Communist Party of China under the leadership of Xi Jinping has repeatedly used inflammatory language against Taiwan.
The military exercises are smaller in scale than the previous exercises following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. They took place over eight days and included missile firings over Taiwan, some of which landed near Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and blockade tactics which temporarily disrupted air and maritime traffic. The movement and planning of the drills suggest that they are intended to stage a more targeted strategy to take Taiwan.
China’s extensive drills might also be a way to influence Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election in January 2024. With President Tsai Ing-Wen stepping down, China could be using military exercises to demonstrate that closely aligning to the US with the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) increases the likelihood of war. This might lead Taiwanese voters to elect the more China-friendly party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to the presidency.
China is extending control over the island. Beyond intimidation tactics, China is also attempting to control the island by other means. Disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks against Taiwan’s infrastructure and pressuring governments to switch their recognition of Beijing instead of Taipei are examples of tactics that are commonly used. Beijing tries to influence Taiwanese citizens by spreading pro-unification propaganda and, recently, by targeting specialist engineers to work in China’s developing semiconductor industry.
Military tensions in East Asia will remain strained. In response to China’s aggression, Japan is set to increase its military budget buying new fighter jets and powerful long-range missiles. For the first time in three decades, South Korea is considering placing nuclear weapons on South Korean soil if North Korea continues to test strategic missiles. With Taiwan being seen as the strategic key to a broader push into the South China Sea and US influence in the region, China’s aggression is likely to keep tensions high in the future.
Tsai Ing-wen has presented Taiwan in terms of authoritarianism versus democracy to draw support from US policymakers. US official policy is to remain ambiguous on this question, but Joe Biden’s support for defending Taiwan against an invasion remains strong. While pushing for US support raises the prospect of deterrence against China, it also risks severing the US-China relationship even further.
China’s extensive military drills are comparably smaller than previous drills, but pose a distinct threat to Taiwan’s security as a functioning democracy. Tensions have characterized the relations between China and Taiwan since 1949 and, at the moment, regular incursions and pressure against the island will remain until the next Taiwanese presidential election in 2024. Yet the centralization of power by Xi Jinping in the Communist Party potentially creates a more volatile situation. Xi Jinping's nationalism that aims for a unified Chinese nation leaves less room for negotiation between the two sides. This, together with military exercises against Taiwan and/or inflammatory rhetoric creates the conditions for an international crisis, also given the high tensions in the region.
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