Tensions Mount Over Taiwan

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Twenty-five Chinese jets breached Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Monday, China’s largest incursion into Taiwanese airspace in a year. The maneuver is part of a long-standing Chinese harassment campaign that intensified last year, when Taiwan saw a record 380 incursions. Intended to wear down Taiwanese morale, the constant intrusions force risky and costly scrambling by its fighters in response. Taiwan has said it will no longer respond by dispatching jets and, instead, by tracking the flights with missile defense systems.

The intensified campaign in part results from increasing nationalism within the Chinese system. Chinese jets have reportedly broadcasted threats and claims to Taiwan over the radio. It is also a response to signals that the United States is growing closer to Taiwan. Last week, the Biden administration loosened restraints on U.S. officials meeting with their Taiwanese counterparts and dispatched a team of retired politicians to Taipei in what a White House official called a “personal signal” of his commitment.

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These gestures are all symbolic, but it’s hard to overstate how much they matter in generating anger inside the Chinese political system.

Hatred of the idea of an independent Taiwan is drummed into Chinese kids from kindergarten. Chinese officials have walked out of meetings where a small gesture of recognition is given to Taipei, torn up conference materials that mention Taiwanese sponsorship, and pressured others to exclude Taiwan—including the Canadian government, which reportedly threatened not to host the prestigious Halifax International Security Forum if Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen received an award.

The chance of actual Chinese invasion still remains small, despite recent warnings from U.S. admirals. To assemble the forces required for even a chance of success would take China weeks at best and be visible well in advance. Discounting the high likelihood of U.S. intervention, amphibious invasions against a defender that has spent decades digging in is incredibly risky, even if the Taiwanese military faces logistical and morale issues. Rationally, an invasion would be a very high-risk move from a largely risk-averse leadership.

The question is: Is the Chinese leadership acting rationally? In the last year, the tone of its rhetoric has intensified in a way that alarms even seasoned readers of Beijing’s language. Chinese diplomats’ aggressive posturing and state media’s violent rhetoric seem off—it could mean Beijing is capable of making dumb mistakes. In a system where backing down from conflict could leave military leaders or provincial officials politically exposed, a small clash in the ocean or in the air could very easily spin out of control.

Credit: Foreign Policy

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