Recent provocations in Taiwan between the US and China risks military escalation, and must be resisted by the anti-war movement, argues Terina Hine
President Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy has led the world onto the brink of new Cold War. As the rivalry between China and the US intensifies, Taiwan has become the latest flashpoint for military confrontation.
With less than 40 days until the US election, the demonisation of China has played a crucial role in the campaign. Both Trump and Biden have spent the summer ratcheting up the rhetoric against Beijing, while the two superpowers have continued to clash over trade, technology and security as well as the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the last few weeks, the tensions have moved up a notch, as the Taiwan Strait, the sea that separates China and Taiwan, has become the backdrop for significant military manoeuvres. Now even the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, has raised the alarm about about a new Cold War. Guterres’ statement, made to coincide with a virtual UN debate on 22 September warned, “Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture…A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geostrategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”
Hot spots around China’s periphery have become commonplace. The Himalayan border with India saw skirmishes earlier in the year and there has been rising anxieties over disputed islands in the South China and East China Seas, with a corresponding build-up of military presence in the region.
Now Washington has chosen to bring Taiwan into the mix. In a move which could only enflame China’s President Xi, Trump has recently embarked upon closer engagement with the Taiwan government. Predictably, China views this as an act of deliberate provocation.
Following a rare visit by the US Health Secretary to the island state last month, China’s Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian warned that China was “firmly opposed” to meetings between Taiwan and the US. This was the first trip to the disputed territory by such a senior US official in over four decades.
A second visit took place last week when the US state department official Keith Krach went to Taiwan, ostensibly to attend a memorial service for the former Taiwanese president. Again, the act was interpreted by the Chinese as a deliberate rebuke to their regional dominance and their claim over Taiwan, prompting the Chinese government to accuse the Americans of undermining “China-US relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Significant Chinese “military exercises”, timed to greet Krach as he touched down in Taipei, were held in the Taiwan Strait on Friday, exercises which, according to China’s defence ministry, were necessary to “safeguard national sovereignty”. A similar display of military prowess occurred in August during the previous US visit, but on a much smaller scale. This time two bombers and several fighter jets crossed into Taiwan’s air buffer zone, with a further eight jets crossing the median line (the line which divides the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and China). Chinese jets were reported to be circling above a heavily populated, industrial area of Taipei.
Military manoeuvres continued over the weekend, with nearly 40 Chinese warplanes either crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait or entering Taiwan’s southwest air defence identification zone (ADIZ). On Tuesday, fighter jets and anti-submarine aircraft crossed again into the ADIZ. This time Taiwan responded by scrambling its own fighter jets. Taiwan’s main daily newspaper, Liberty Times, reported that the Taiwanese jets were armed with short and medium range air-to-air missiles, showing a picture of the missiles being loaded at a Taiwan airbase. The implications are obvious.
The Taiwan government has now called on the international community to intervene. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, warned China to “back off” following the incidents, and tweeted: “I call on the international community to condemn the CCP for its dangerous and provocative words and deeds threatening peace and the status quo.”
Unsurprisingly, the US has doubled down in its support for Taiwan, with Mike Pompeo damning China’s actions as “military blustering”. Along with the US, the UK has indicated they will continue to increase military presence in the region, with the UK intending to send one of its two aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, on its first ever mission to the South China Sea. Keen to show they have UK support, American Ambassador Woody Johnson recently tweeted: “We welcome the UK joining us and other allies in calling out China’s unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea.”
As if a US and UK military build-up in the region was not enough, the US is planning to sell billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Taiwan, apparently as part of Washington’s longterm aim to encourage Taiwan to arm itself in preparation for a “guerilla-like war” against China.
On 17 September the Financial Times reported the US is planning an arms deal with Taiwan worth $7bn. This follows on the back of a 2019 US-Taiwan deal worth $8bn. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank, the deal would include “sea mines, coastal defence cruise missiles and drones” all intended to help Taiwan defend itself against an attack by the Chinese military.
Enabling this military build-up is nothing less than a direct warning from Trump to Beijing. As the rivalry between the two countries increases, Trump has clearly decided to take on Chinese hegemony in the region. The recent military incursions into Taiwan’s air space by China show the Chinese are prepared to resist, militarily if necessary.
China has doubled its annual defence spending over the last two decades, and now has the world’s largest navy alongside an arsenal of weaponry capable of damaging US military targets throughout the region. President Xi is keen to show the world and the region that China is no longer following a low-profile policy in international affairs; China is becoming increasingly assertive. If military confrontation is to be avoided Trump should take heed.
The US, helped by its allies, is seen by China as seriously threatening peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. In August, China’s Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “On issues involving China’s core interests, some people in the United States must not have any illusions and wishful thinking. Those who play with fire will get burnt.” It appears that China and the US are fighting fire with fire. The risk is surely that the fire will burn out of control.
It is incumbent on the anti-war movement to call these provocations out. It is clear that current hostilities, whether by design or miscalculation, could easily spill into a direct military confrontation at any point. We must do what we can to prevent this new Cold War hotting up any further.
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