EXPLANATION: How China’s flights near Taiwan ignite tensions

BANGKOK – A recent spate of Chinese military flights off southwestern Taiwan has alarmed the island, which Beijing claims to be its own, and is increasing tensions in an already on edge.

Flights are just one piece of a complex puzzle in Asia, where the United States and its allies have stepped up naval maneuvers and Australia announced last month that it was purchasing nuclear-powered submarines in part of an agreement seen as a direct challenge for Beijing. Meanwhile, Japan has increasingly spoken out that China is becoming a security threat.

Experts agree that an armed conflict is not imminent, but as military activity increases, there are growing concerns that an incident or miscalculation could lead to an unintentional escalation. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Beijing and Washington last month to mend their “completely dysfunctional” relationship, saying “we must avoid a cold war at all costs.”

Here are some of the issues involved:


China presents its military profile as purely defensive, designed to protect what it says are its sovereign rights from Taiwan to the South China Sea and its contested long mountainous border with India. The United States and many of China’s neighbors view this position as aggressive and have stepped up their own presence in the hope of stopping China’s efforts to permanently change the facts on the ground.

China, after years of increased military spending, now has the second largest defense budget in the world behind the United States, totaling around $ 209 billion this year. This enabled the development of advanced weapon systems, including the J-20 stealth fighter, hypersonic missiles and two aircraft carriers, with a third under construction.

President Xi Jinping, also commander of the People’s Liberation Army, has overseen the construction of military facilities on man-made islands in the South China Sea intended to expand China’s territorial waters, and said the implementation of Taiwan under Beijing’s control could not be left to the other. generation. Its threats to autonomous island democracy have been amplified by military exercises along the coast opposite Taiwan and the theft of large numbers of Chinese fighter jets in the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone, including a single-day record of 56 Monday, capping a total of 149 flights over a four-day period.

Xi is due to deliver a speech on Saturday on the eve of Taiwan’s National Day. The exceptionally high profile address will be watched closely for signs of Taiwanese public awareness or any hardening of the China line.


The United States, with bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam, has a strong military presence in the region and pursues an Indo-Pacific-focused “pivot” to counter the increasingly assertive position of the United States. China.

In a speech this week, US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro told cadets that China will be the “challenge that will define your naval careers,” saying Beijing is using its military influence to “threaten its neighbors, defy established standards. and attempt to control international waters like his.

“Our job is to preserve the peace by ensuring that the People’s Republic of China does not acquire military influence over the United States or our allies and partners,” he said.

To this end, the United States regularly holds exercises in the region with multiple allies, including a recent one involving 17 ships from six countries that took place northeast of Taiwan off the Japanese island of Okinawa in same time as Chinese flights south of Taiwan.

Washington’s long-standing policy has been to provide political and military support to Taiwan, while not explicitly promising to defend it against Chinese attack.

Although the United States has no base in Taiwan, U.S. officials confirmed this week that special forces have been training with the Taiwanese military for over a year, including maritime operations with commandos from the Navy in recent weeks.

US military support to Taiwan is “based on an assessment of Taiwan’s defense needs and the threat posed by” China, Pentagon spokesman John Supple said.

Last month before the United Nations General Assembly, US President Joe Biden did not mention China by name, but stressed that the United States “will defend our allies and friends and oppose the attempts of more countries. strong to dominate the weak ”.


Taiwan is primarily concerned with consolidating its de facto status of independence while maintaining economic ties with China and avoiding military confrontation.

While Taipei and Washington have not had official diplomatic relations since the United States changed its ties with Beijing in 1979, US law requires Washington to help Taiwan maintain a defensive capability and address threats against the island. as a “serious concern”. This includes sales of advanced radar systems, fighter jets and warships which have angered China.

Along with the purchase of weapons from the United States, President Tsai Ing-wen boosted the domestic military industry, especially the development of submarines considered essential for defense, but which Taiwan was unable to buy abroad due to Chinese pressure. Taiwan will display some of its weapons on Sunday during the first National Day military parade since Tsai came to power in 2016.

Taiwan is also fighting a Chinese campaign to diplomatically isolate it, welcoming US officials on recent visits and this week a delegation of French senators and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who accused China of being a bully and expressed enthusiastic support for the government of Taiwan. in a context of sharp deterioration in relations between Beijing and Canberra.


Australia made a strong statement last month when it announced it was renouncing a $ 66 billion deal with France for diesel-powered submarines in favor of a new deal with the United States. United and Great Britain for nuclear powered submarines.

The move was seen as a doubling of the Australian-American alliance at a time when China is pressuring Australia with tariffs and import bans. Beijing criticized the deal, under which the US and UK will help Australia build at least eight submarines, calling it “highly irresponsible” and saying it “would seriously undermine the peace. and regional stability ”.

Leaders from Australia, the United States, Japan and India – a group known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – met in Washington shortly after the deal was announced on the submarines for broad discussions that included discussions on how to keep the Indo-Pacific “free and open.” “

India joined the regional maneuvers, significantly sending ships across the South China Sea to participate in exercises with the United States, Japan and Australia off Guam in August, including the purpose, according to New Delhi, was to show a “commitment to freedom of navigation at sea”.

China and India are embroiled in a land border dispute that has led to clashes this year and last. India is also concerned about the growing presence of Chinese research vessels and trawlers in the Indian Ocean region, which are permitted under international law but which it suspects of collecting data for military purposes.

Japan has long been cautious in its dealings with China, a key trading partner, but now increasingly views the country as a security threat. New Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said dialogue with China is important, but that Japan should also team up with like-minded democracies and strengthen its security alliance with the United States and other partners.


Britain has recently been among the most engaged in the region, combining heightened diplomatic outreach with sending an aircraft carrier strike group on a 28-week deployment as it pursues a “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific recommended by a British government’s defense and foreign policy review.

As a maritime trading nation, Britain stressed the need to keep trade routes clear and used its naval presence to bolster established international routes, such as sending the frigate HMS Richmond across the Straits of Taiwan in a move criticized by China as a “meaningless display of presence with insidious intent.”

The European Union unveiled its own strategy last month to strengthen political and defense ties in the Indo-Pacific, stressing the need for dialogue with Beijing but at the same time proposing a strengthened naval presence and greater cooperation in terms of security with regional partners.

France has regularly sent warships to the region, and at the moment the Netherlands and Germany have ships participating in ongoing exercises with the United States and other navies. More than bolstering the military presence, the wide range of forces involved is a way of countering the Chinese position that it is reacting to unilateral US actions.

In his speech, US Secretary of the Navy Del Toro said there was “no substitute for the shared experiences of allies working together to deter our adversaries.”

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