2021February 2021

China and U.S. Actions in Taiwan Point to Escalating Tensions

Jasmine DeLeon
Staff Writer

Recent Chinese military actions toward Taiwan and U.S. actions are raising concerns about a developing regional conflict ‒ and its implications on the rest of the world.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry claims that China sent a total of 28 warplanes near Taiwanese territory in the last week of January alone, reports CNN. About a week later on February 4th, the USS John S. McCain, a U.S. Navy warship, sailed in the Taiwan Strait, the channel that divides Taiwan and China, according to NBC News. Insider reports that amid increasing tensions with China last year, the U.S. Navy sent 13 warships into the Taiwan Strait. While this recent action is not unprecedented, it marks the first time that such measures were taken since President Joe Biden took office.

China’s move sending warplanes near Taiwan is also part of a larger pattern of increasing Chinese military action. According to Reuters, in July 2020, Jaushieh Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, cited cases of China increasing its military activity in its air defense identification zone. In a podcast from October 2019, The Economist’s Shashank Joshi stated that the level of military activity around China “is unprecedented in twenty years,” reports The Economist.

Another notable development is the heightened rhetoric between China and Taiwan. In January at a monthly news briefing, Wu Qian, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson, expressed concern about threats of “external interference” and the “handful” of people in Taiwan who seek Taiwanese independence. He warned “those who play with fire will burn themselves, and ‘Taiwan independence’ means war”, reports Reuters.

Analysts have a myriad of views on the implications of Chinese and U.S. military actions. One concern is that American and Chinese actions regarding Taiwan will continue to escalate because “political tensions between both [states] are rising”, states the Council on Foreign Relations. BBC News reports that some analysts see Chinese incursions as a warning to the Biden administration that supporting Taiwan could be costly.

Blake Herzinger, a U.S. Navy Reserve officer and Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist, argues in a recent op-ed in Foreign Policy that scholarly opinions and current news stories on Chinese military actions should not be interpreted as a test of the Biden administration. Herzinger cites incidents when the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations dealt with Chinese aggression at the start of their terms as evidence against the argument that China intends to test “American resolve.” He also argues that a “handful of [military] incidents” should not be used to summarize the “long-term interactions of superpowers.”

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China views Taiwan as part of its territory while Taiwan views itself as an independent government. The United States has not formally recognized Taiwan, instead adopting a policy of strategic ambiguity that allows the U.S. to sell the island arms “for self-defense and does not rule out the possibility of the United States defending Taiwan from Chinese attack.” According to Reuters, the U.S. is Taiwan’s “strongest international backer and arms supplier.”

The Trump administration strengthened relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, increasing tensions between the three actors. In August 2020, then Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar met with President Tsai—a meeting that made headlines as the first official high-level American visit to Taiwan in decades. In October 2020, President Trump approved a $1.8 billion weapons sale to Taiwan, drawing criticisms from China, states BBC News. One of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s final actions in office was to lift U.S. government restrictions on contacts between Taiwanese and American officials, reports Reuters.

Current evidence suggests the Biden administration will continue to support Taiwan against Chinese interests. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed a “bipartisan commitment to Taiwan” in his Senate confirmation hearing, reports NBC. According to Nikkei Asia, Lloyd Austin, Biden’s Secretary of Defense, stated during his confirmation hearing that he would ensure that the U.S. lives up “to our commitments to support Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.” Moreover, Hsiao Bi-khim, Tawian’s de facto ambassador to the U.S., attended President Biden’s inauguration, says The Wall Street Journal. This move broke decades of precedent and signaled the incoming administration’s support for Taiwan.

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