The US State Department has approved a potential sale of $1.1 billion worth of military equipment to Taiwan, including 60 anti-ship missiles and 100 air-to-air missiles, Reuters reported. In response, China threatened to take countermeasures.
The sale includes Sidewinder missiles, which can be used for air-to-air and surface-to-air missions, worth about $85.6 million, Harpoon anti-ship missiles worth an estimated $355 million, and support of Taiwan’s radar program at an estimated cost of $665.4 million, the Pentagon’s Defense and Security Cooperation Agency said.
The US Defense Department announced the package in connection with China’s military exercises around Taiwan after a visit to the island last month by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – the most senior US representative to travel to Taipei in years. Commentators note that Pelosi’s visit is not a “white swallow” – there have been at least two other visits to Taiwan by members of Congress from both parties, as well as US state governors.
Were they condemned by China? Yes. At the same time, Washington continues to repeat its refrain that neither the visits nor arms sales will change the military balance in the region and do not demonstrate a change in US policy, Reuters points out. Which many, not only in China, do not accept as true.
Pelosi’s visit ushered in the “new normal” in the Taiwan Strait — a massive, near-continuous Chinese military presence that involves warships crossing the line that separates territorial waters. According to Politico, Beijing’s actions suggest a rehearsal for Taiwan’s beheading. In addition, increasing raids by Chinese aircraft are rewriting the status quo in the Taiwan Strait – and leaving the US with few options.
China has signaled it has no intention of reducing its increasingly aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait, which began in response to Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taipei last month.
A series of recent incursions into the island’s airspace, which violate a decades-old tacit agreement between Taiwan and China aimed at reducing the risk of conflict between the two countries, are the latest escalation of Beijing’s military intimidation against Taiwan.
The now “normal” military presence is indicative of Beijing’s intention to change the criteria for acceptable military activity in the Strait. Analysts say this is not just a provocation – it is a dress rehearsal for an invasion of Taiwan, Politico points out. And the Biden administration has no clear plan to deter this intimidation.
“The line separating the territorial waters of the two countries is a legal fiction, not a treaty line… We are backed into a corner because what we consider to be the status quo was actually Chinese self-restraint, but now that self-restraint is gone and we we can’t send planes to force them back across the line,” said Michael Oslin, a distinguished scholar of modern Asia at the Hoover Institution.
Crossings by Chinese warplanes, ships and drones of the dividing line – also known as the Davis Line – reflect Beijing’s two-pronged strategy. China wants its military presence ever closer to Taiwan to be seen as normal now as an affirmation of Chinese sovereignty over the territory. Beijing also wants to reduce the response capacity of Taiwan’s armed forces while rehearsing attack routes designed to cripple the island’s military and government.
“The Chinese continue to try to basically impose as the new normal here flying over the dividing line, sailing across that line and staying on the other side for longer periods of time,” said US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. “They’re trying to raise the temperature … We’ve publicly stated that we will not accept it.”
“Since August 4, communist forces have been continuously invading the areas around the Taiwan Strait,” Taiwan’s defense ministry said in a statement late last month.
Since August 6, the ministry has recorded at least 94 violations of the demarcation line by the Chinese military, although it did not provide details on the type of aircraft involved or whether they were armed and capable of using weapons.
Taipei made clear that the incursions marked a dangerous new phase in the Chinese military’s activities against the island, warning that Chinese forces were “simulating an attack on the main island of Taiwan”.
Analysts warn that if these incursions become routine and include trajectories toward Taipei, they will strengthen Beijing’s military advantage in the event of a future attack by the Chinese military.
The median line, left over from the 1954 US-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty, is designed to keep military aircraft on both sides of the strait at a safe distance to prevent miscalculations that could lead to a potential cross-strait conflict .
For nearly 70 years, an imaginary line running through the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and China has helped keep the peace, but the so-called middle line looks increasingly meaningless as China’s modernized navy asserts its power.
China has never formally recognized the line, which a US general devised in 1954 at the height of hostilities between Communist China and US-backed Taiwan during the Cold War, although the People’s Liberation Army largely abided by it, the agency added.
The dividing line has no defining characteristics. For years, China tacitly recognized it, but in 2020 a foreign ministry spokesman said it “does not exist”. This was echoed by the Ministry of Defense and the Taiwan Affairs Council.
According to Christopher Toomey, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, the US Navy views the line as a “political artifact” rather than a legal statement. He pointed out that the dangers should not be overstated and the recognition and use of the strait as an international waterway would continue. He described China’s activities as “political statements”.
Chinese military aircraft have breached the demarcation line only four times between 1954 and 2020. But Beijing ended that almost seventy years of reticence when, in response to Deputy Secretary of State Keith Krach’s visit to Taipei in September 2020, it sent dozens of aircraft across the midline within two days.
The Chinese military responded to Pelosi’s 19-hour visit to Taiwan on August 2-3 by sending warplanes across the dividing line almost daily. These fighters and bombers cross the strait in formations ranging in size from five to 25 aircraft, pass the dividing line and then quickly change course.
For Washington’s strategists, the main difficulty is Taiwan’s distance from China. At its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is 130 km wide. The median is about 80 km from Taiwan: Chinese planes crossing it can reach Taiwan’s coastline in less than four minutes, and Taipei just 80 seconds later.
“One of the biggest problems facing the United States is that we need early warning of an impending Chinese attack, and if the Chinese always look like they’re ready to attack, we start to have trouble telling the difference.” says Oriana Skyler Mastro, a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “It’s not that we won’t notice when the infantry don’t land in Taiwan, but the time between the decision and the unequivocal signal to us is minimized,” Politico quoted her as saying.
The constant pressure mode is testing the resilience of Taiwan’s military, which is in constant rapid response mode to assess the trajectory and potential threat of another Chinese fighter jet.
Taiwan’s military said on September 1 that it had shot down a drone that was flying over one of its islands near China’s coast, the latest incident amid heightened tensions between Beijing and Taipei, the Associated Press reported. The downed machine was determined to be for civilian use, but it was not specified what was on board when it was downed.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration is pushing to strengthen defenses against drones as part of a 12.9 percent increase in the defense ministry’s annual budget next year. This will increase defense spending by another 47.5 billion New Taiwan dollars ($1.6 billion), to a total of 415.1 billion New Taiwan dollars ($13.8 billion).
Against the backdrop of tensions, it should not be forgotten that China is also Taiwan’s most significant trading partner, followed by the US. More than 42% of Taiwan’s exports go to China, and 22% of Taiwan’s imports come from there. A total of $166 billion worth of goods and services were exchanged between Taiwan and China in 2020, Deutsche Welle reported.
Security experts recall that China has repeatedly stated the goal of reunification of Taiwan and the mainland by the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic at the latest. The anniversary will be celebrated in 2049. As observers point out that China’s strategists are planning decades ahead, the historical clock to carry out that message is ticking down. Whether Washington’s actions will accelerate the turning of the hands remains to be seen.