China is testing the West. We shouldn’t back down.
The United States and five allies conduct naval exercises in the Philippine Sea in October. (Gray Gibson/U.S. Navy/AP) Opinion by Josh Rogin December 24 at 7:57 am Taiwan Time In early October, the Chinese military launched its most threatening moves against Taiwan to date, spreading panic there. But the real target of Beijing’s ire that week was not Taiwan, but rather the United States and the five other allied navies that were conducting unprecedented joint exercises in nearby waters. The strategic situation in the western Pacific is changing fast as Beijing tries to assert its dominance over the region and define the terms of our engagement. We can’t let China bully us into not responding. Between Oct. 1 and 4, China’s air force flew nearly 150 war planes into Taiwan’s airspace; the 56 fighters, bombers and submarine hunters that flew on Oct. 4 were the largest ever one-day contingent sent near the island. The Biden administration condemned China’s actions, calling them “provocative” and “destabilizing” and warning that they ”undermine[d] regional peace and stability.” But not wanting to exacerbate an already tense situation, the Biden administration didn’t disclose that Beijing’s moves were very likely a response to the largest ever U.S.-led joint naval drills happening in the nearby Philippine Sea at the same time. Two U.S. naval carrier strike groups, one British carrier group, three large Japanese ships and naval forces from Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands had convened on the region in a massive show of force. The exercises were meant to send a signal of resolve, telling China firmly but not publicly that the United States and its allies intend to preserve open freedom of movement in areas of the Pacific Ocean that Beijing claims as its own. Their proximity to Taiwan was sure to get Beijing’s attention. The exercises were not even announced until several days later. That’s because the United States and its partners were trying to strike a delicate diplomatic balance: sending a clear signal to China without sparking a public kerfuffle. But rather than expressing its opposition to the exercises quietly, the Chinese government opted for a severe and very public reaction, causing a crisis. In the moment, there was no direct communication between the two sides, owing to the general deterioration of U.S.-China military relations. So China and the West were talking to each other with ships and warplanes, leaving both sides unsure how their messages were coming through. “This clearly was aimed to send a message, and clearly we think the timing wasn’t coincidental," a senior defense officials told me about the Chinese air force flights near Taiwan. “They are definitely flexing, to send a strong signal to Western powers to stay out of the way.” Taiwan heard Beijing’s message loud and clear – and responded with equal clarity. The Taiwanese defense forces scrambled planes to respond to the Chinese air force’s aggression. Taiwan’s leaders increased their calls for the international community to rally around a defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty amid the increasing threat from China. Inside the U.S. government, officials differed about how dangerous the situation in the Pacific became that week. They noted that U.S. intelligence cannot confirm exactly why Beijing responded to the joint exercises so forcefully. But all agreed that the two events were linked and that both sides are trying to establish new positions in a rapidly changing security environment without clear lines of communication — which could be dangerous. Many China watchers inside and outside the U.S. government believe that Beijing, by overreacting to moves such as the joint exercises, is trying to pressure us to do exactly nothing as it strives to assert its dominance over the region. China wants to encourage fears among some in the West who believe that standing up to Beijing will inevitably lead to conflict. “We need to be careful not to let the Chinese determine our actions or have a veto over what we do to maintain stability in the region,” said Michael R. Auslin, distinguished research fellow at the Hoover Institution. “That would simply create more space for them to continue shifting the balance of power in their favor.” China is rehearsing an invasion of Taiwan and training its troops to attack U.S. aircraft carriers, but it throws a tantrum when the United States increases the scope of joint naval operations in return. We must not play into that tactic. The joint exercises show that the United States is not alone in its concern about China’s efforts to change the balance of power in Asia. Our allies are at a point where they know much more needs to be done to respond to China’s military expansion in the region. But they still are worrying too much about ruffling Beijing’s feathers. The best way to demonstrate to China that tantrums and bullying won’t work is to continue apace with our efforts to build up our alliances and capability to keep the region free — including readiness to come to Taiwan’s defense, if necessary. The risk of escalation is real, but we can’t let that paralyze us. In the face of aggression, inaction is the most dangerous course of all.