Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 26 February 2024

China Is Running Out of Lines to Cross in the Taiwan Strait

A Navy tugboat sailing on the Taiwan Strait. In the foreground there are people watching the boat from a bridge.
Credit... Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Ben Lewis

Mr. Lewis is an independent defense analyst who tracks Chinese military activity.

In 2020, the balance of military power in the Taiwan Strait began a gradual but profound shift in China’s favor.

That August, Alex Azar, then the Health and Human Services secretary, became the highest-ranking U.S. cabinet official to visit Taiwan in more than four decades. Though he was there to talk about the pandemic, China’s People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) responded by carrying out large-scale military exercises around the self-governing island, sending aircraft over the median line of the Taiwan Strait for only the third time in more than 20 years. Since then, China has responded to such visits and other perceived provocations by flying more than 4,800 sorties, with growing numbers of aircraft flying in locations previously seen as off-limits and conducting dozens of increasingly complex air and naval military exercises around Taiwan.

The P.L.A.’s now-normalized presence around Taiwan raises the risk of an accidental confrontation. But over the longer term, it has also gradually created a dangerous sense of complacency in Taipei and Washington, while giving China the crucial operational practice it might one day need to seize the island.

As a military analyst specializing in China and Taiwan who has spent the last two years managing an open-source database tracking Chinese military activity, I am deeply concerned about the dangers that this activity poses. Alarm bells should be ringing, but neither Taiwan nor the United States have taken meaningful action to deter China, and Taiwan’s response has been inconsistent and lacks transparency, which may further embolden Beijing. A more robust approach is needed to deter China from escalating the situation.

In 2020, shortly after China began raising the pressure, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense started releasing daily reports on Chinese military activity inside the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone, a perimeter extending beyond Taiwan’s territorial waters and airspace that is monitored to provide early warning of approaching Chinese planes or missiles. In previous years, China rarely entered the zone. But in 2020, P.L.A. aircraft breached it nearly 400 times. Last year, that number exceeded 1,700.

Beijing has steadily pushed the envelope. P.L.A. forces also rarely crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, the halfway point between China and Taiwan. But in August 2022, after a visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Chinese forces crossed the line 302 times that month, essentially erasing it as a functional boundary. Today, Chinese aircraft continue to cross the line almost daily, leaving Taiwan only minutes to assess China’s intentions in a dangerous guessing game that leaves the door open for miscalculation. Since last year, China also has essentially established a permanent naval presence around the island.

With no official contact between Beijing and Taipei for the past eight years, the chances of defusing an inadvertent clash are limited. An isolated confrontation could escalate into an attack by China or to a rapid deployment of the now well-drilled air and naval forces it has around Taiwan, cutting the island off from any U.S. help and dramatically reducing American military options.

This tense climate is straining Taiwan’s defenses. In early 2021, Taiwan stopped scrambling jets for every violation of the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone after spending almost nine percent of the previous year’s defense budget on monitoring Chinese aircraft.

This atmosphere also has sown policy confusion. In October 2022, after the incursions following Ms. Pelosi’s visit, Taiwan’s defense ministry announced that any P.L.A. aircraft that violate Taiwan’s territorial air and sea space — 12 nautical miles from the island’s shores — will be viewed as a “first strike,” likely meaning they would be shot down.

Since then, no incursions by P.L.A. aircraft have been publicly revealed, but China has tested Taiwan’s policy by sending at least 27 balloons into the island’s territorial airspace since the start of this year, forcing Taipei to choose between taking no action, which gives Beijing tacit permission to continue to violate the island’s airspace, or shooting down the balloons, which could provoke China. So far, Taiwan is not known to have taken any action against the balloons that have entered its airspace.

Taipei’s approach to sharing information about Chinese activities with the public has not been fully transparent, marked by unexplained changes in how much information it releases. Caution is understandable to avoid raising public alarm. But a lack of transparency also prevents the government from communicating the true situation to Taiwan’s people, which could lead to calls for a different policy.

Taiwanese made their desires clear last month when they chose Lai Ching-te, who is committed to the island’s sovereignty, as their next president. Mr. Lai’s victory presents a chance for his government to adopt a more transparent approach to Beijing’s military aggression similar to that of the Philippines, which has demonstrated that drawing attention to Chinese actions in the South China Sea can help build domestic, regional and international support for efforts to counter that aggression.

In Washington, there is bipartisan support for Taiwan, and President Biden has repeatedly stated that the United States would come to the island’s defense. The Taiwan Relations Act, which has governed American policy toward the island for four decades, explicitly states that any moves to determine Taiwan’s future by other than peaceful means would be of “grave concern.” But America has come up with no specific response to China’s recent military activity.

The United States must make clear to China that its military activities could spark a war and are no longer acceptable. Washington should also coordinate with Taipei on more effective ways to deter Chinese provocations, such as through increased information sharing, air patrol exercises and ensuring that the island is fully equipped and prepared to defend its sovereignty.

America’s strategic attention is being consumed by wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. But if the United States takes its eye off the perilous situation facing Taiwan, there soon may be no lines left for China to cross.

More on China and Taiwan

Ben Lewis (@officialben_l) is an independent defense analyst specializing in China and Taiwan military and security affairs. He is co-founder of PLATracker, a site that tracks Chinese military activity and development, and manages the site’s database on Chinese military activity around Taiwan.

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