Taiwan Strait tension: All acoustics?

Fears that China’s military exercises could lead to a military confrontation between China and the US, therefore, seems misplaced. Both sides have strong interests in avoiding this outcome.

August 12, 2022

Quash that fear.

Contrary to speculations, the tension now reverberating across the Taiwan Strait on account of China’s live-fire drills is far from evolving into a full-blown crisis.

While military exercises, more particularly those involving air and sea drills, may showcase a country’s ability to perform missions under conditions resembling actual warfare, they are viewed mainly as a show of force meant to act as a deterrent to other hostile forces.

Experts agree that neither the United States nor China has the appetite for the tension to escalate into war. According to Justin Bassi, executive director for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China’s military exercises will probably be calibrated to avoid escalation from the US.

Washington, for its part, has been very careful not to express unilateral support for Taiwan’s independence, knowing that it is China’s “red line.” The Americans are careful enough to ensure they find the right balance between supporting Taiwan without emboldening the island-nation to do something that would cause a larger conflict.

While China’s military escalation is worrisome, it is not at all unexpected. Beijing, as some observers see it, is just trying to express its resolute objection to the visit of United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The military drills are meant to demonstrate that it is capable of blockading the entire strait.

While there has been a history of military displays in the strait in the past, the missile tests unleashed by China closer to the island-nation are seen as merely a demonstration of its military strength and capability.

The Chinese government claims Taiwan as a province of China and has not ruled out taking it by force.

At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the losing Kuomintang government fled to the island of Taiwan, establishing the Republic of China (RoC), a government in exile. On the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) established the People’s Republic of China. Since 1970, many nations began switching their formal ties from the RoC to Beijing, and today fewer than 15 world governments recognize the RoC (Taiwan) as a country.

The CCP has never ruled over Taiwan, and since the end of the civil war, Taiwan has enjoyed de facto independence. Since the decades-long period of martial law ended in the 1980s, Taiwan has also grown to become a vibrant democracy with free elections and media.

But since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he has made it clear that reunification with Taiwan is high on his agenda. Taiwan, however, has declared it is a sovereign country with no need to declare independence.

It has worked to modernize its military and is buying large numbers of military assets and weapons from the US in the hope it can deter Xi and the CCP from making a move.

Over the past decade, Washington has increased its emphasis on support for Taiwan in response to what it perceives to be increasingly assertive Chinese actions. The strategic ambiguity doctrine maintains that the US will help build Taiwan’s military capabilities, but provides no guarantees to provide direct military support in response to a military attack by China.

Fears that China’s military exercises could lead to a military confrontation between China and the US, therefore, seem misplaced. Both sides have strong interests in avoiding this outcome.

Increasingly assertive Chinese actions in the strait may appear to be a powerful signal to Washington and the rest of the world that they are capable of taking Taiwan back if they want to, but experts see it more as a ploy to demonstrate Xi’s strength to a domestic audience who could appoint him to a third presidential term at the 20th CCP congress later this year.


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