US-China shadow war descends on Taiwan

By Richard Javad Heydarian

Nearly a month after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s explosive visit to Taiwan, there is no sign of relenting by either China or the US over the self-governing island.

This week saw the Taiwanese military fire warning shots at a Chinese drone for the first time in history, underscoring rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Earlier, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen had ordered her armed forces to adopt “strong countermeasures” against any further Chinese provocations.

In recent weeks, China has conducted massive military drills in a muscular expression of its displeasure with Pelosi’s visit, one that has flexed its ability to wage 21st-century warfare across multiple domains.

After showing extreme restraint, largely to avoid escalating regional tensions, Taiwanese defense officials have now vowed to respond in kind to China’s “high intensity” military activities within the self-ruling island nation’s “inner sea.”

“For aircraft and ships that entered our sea and air territory of 12 nautical miles, the national army will exercise right to self-defense and counter-attack without exception,” declared Lin Wen-Huang, Taiwan’s deputy chief of the general staff for operations and planning, during a press conference this week.

Eager to demonstrate its support for Taiwan and no doubt perturbed by the rapidly shifting balance of power in the region in China’s favor, the Biden administration is now seeking for the US Congress to approve a US$1.1 billion arms package sale to Taiwan, which would reportedly include 100 AIM-9X Block II Sidewinder tactical air-to-air missiles and 60 AGM-84L Harpoon Block II missiles.

With growing US bipartisan support for a tougher stance against China, the White House has been eager to burnish its Taiwan credentials by deploying a new batch of warships to the area in recent days.

With US midterm elections approaching, China seems to be dialing back its military response to Pelosi’s visit lest it empowers more hawkish Republicans who aim to win control of both legislative chambers at November mid-term elections.

China and the US have thus settled into a type of shadowboxing over Taiwan that neither side wants to escalate into an all-out conflict, though the potential for tit-for-tat miscalculation is rising.

In retrospect, China’s fiery response to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was far more than just a strategic tantrum. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted massive, complex and highly intimidating drills on almost a daily basis shortly after the US speaker left the self-ruling island Beijing considers a renegade province.

At one point, as many as 22 Chinese fighter jets pierced through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), while 22 others crossed the median line that has long served as a de facto territorial demarcation in the Taiwan Straits.

In the largest exercise of its kind, stretching across six zones surrounding the island nation, the PLA fired missiles over Taiwan for the first time in history. As many as 10 warships were also deployed close to Taiwan’s territorial waters.

During previous showdowns, including the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the PLA largely kept its warships within the median line and didn’t fire missiles over Taiwan. In contrast, this year saw China responding with a vengeance, breaching previously-held operational understandings.

The geography of China’s military operations has also undergone a major and crucial transformation. During the previous crisis, much of the PLA’s maneuvers were aimed at the northern and southern portions of Taiwan to demonstrate China’s “missile blockade tactics”, according to Taipei-based defense expert Chi Le-yi.

This time, however, “the PLA is going further to bring east Taiwan and the southwest Bashi Channel under its missile range coverage … This is a clear move aimed at showing how they would block the entrance of vessels and aircraft from the US and Japan to Taiwan in the event of a contingency,” he added.

After decades of rapid military modernization, the PLA was also able to demonstrate its capability to conduct multi-domain operations with shiny new weapons, including an aircraft carrier, domestically-produced stealth fighter jets and upgraded long-range missiles.

The message to Taiwan was crystal clear: Beijing is inching closer to gaining the ability to fully choke off the self-ruling island in the event of a total war.

As one researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, which is affiliated with Taiwan’s Defense Ministry, noted, “I think they [China] have shown their intentions, encircling Taiwan and countering foreign intervention.”

According to top Taiwanese defense officials, the PLA may acquire the ability to wage a full-scale war by as early as 2025.

In response, Taiwanese President Tsai vowed her country will “never be knocked down by challenges” presented by Beijing’s growing military capabilities. To mitigate the shifting balance of military power in the Taiwan Strait, the Tsai administration has proposed to increase the self-ruling island’s defense spending by nearly 15% to NT$523.4 billion ($17.3 billion), among the largest military budgets in Asia.

Taiwan has also allocated a special fund worth $2 billion to enhance its combat readiness as well as maritime and aerial deterrence capabilities.

The Biden administration’s proposed new defense package deal aims to bolster Taiwan’s military modernization efforts. This is largely consistent with the former Trump administration’s efforts to constrain China’s regional ambitions by strengthening the defensive capabilities of and expanding diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Although reportedly skeptical of Pelosi’s visit, the Pentagon has doubled down on its naval maneuvers in the area, deploying two guided-missile cruisers through the strait over the weekend.

Singapore-based analyst Collin Koh underscored the unusual nature of the deployment, since “[h]aving two instead of the usual one vessel to do this mission is certainly a ‘bigger’ signal of protest against not only Beijing’s recent military exercises around Taiwan following the Pelosi visit, but also in response to Beijing’s attempt to subvert the legal status of the waterway and the longstanding freedom of navigation rights through the area.”

What was even more surprising, however, was China’s relatively muted response despite its heightened alarm and strategic sensitivity in recent weeks.

Even the state-backed Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid notorious for its incendiary rhetoric, uncharacteristically downplayed the US deployments as inconsequential, since they “[pose] no actual threat to China’s security.”

Having flexed its new military capabilities while failing to dissuade a new wave of diplomatic visits to Taiwan by Western legislators in recent weeks, Beijing seems to be recalibrating its position.

This is likely due to the upcoming 20th Party Congress in mid-October, a highly sensitive event which is expected to hand Chinese President Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term in office.

But Beijing also has its sights on the upcoming US midterm elections in November, where Republicans are favored to take full control of the US legislature.

As Carl Schuster, a former chief of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, put it, “[Xi] doesn’t want a House and Senate that may enact legislation that more strongly supports Taiwan, or limits Chinese investment and influence in the US.”

The Chinese paramount leader will also likely meet Biden on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November, the first face-to-face meeting between the two world leaders since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic.

After demonstrating his country’s displeasure and military muscle, the Chinese leader is now likely considering a temporary offramp, which would allow the two superpowers to explore a reset in bilateral relations and their positions on Taiwan.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian