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Tensions in Taiwan increase fears of a conflict between the United States and China in Asia

BANGKOK: After sending a record number of military aircraft to harass Taiwan during the Chinese National Day holiday, Beijing has toned down the saber rattling, but tensions remain high, with the rhetoric and reasoning behind the exercises without changes.
Experts agree that direct conflict is unlikely at this time, but as the future of autonomous Taiwan increasingly turns into a powder keg, a mishap or miscalculation could lead to a confrontation as the Chinese and American ambitions are at odds.
China seeks to regain control of the strategically and symbolically important island, and the United States views Taiwan in the context of broader challenges from China.
“From the US perspective, the concept of a great power rivalry with China has put this back on the agenda,” said Henry Boyd, a UK-based defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“The need to take on China is a strong enough motivating factor that not taking this fight is also seen as a betrayal of American national interests.”
China claims Taiwan as its own, and control of the island is a key component of Beijing’s political and military thinking. Leader Xi Jinping over the weekend again emphasized that “the reunification of the nation must take place, and it will definitely take place,” a goal made more realistic with massive upgrades to China’s armed forces over the past two decades.
In response, the US has increased its support for Taiwan and, more generally, has turned its attention to the Indo-Pacific region. US State Department spokesman Ned Price stressed Tuesday that US support for Taiwan is “rock solid” and said “we have also been very clear that we are committed to deepening our ties with Taiwan.”
Washington’s longstanding policy has been to provide political and military support to Taiwan, without explicitly promising to defend it from a Chinese attack.
The two sides were perhaps the closest to hitting in 1996, when China, upset by what it saw as growing American support for Taiwan, decided to flex its muscles with exercises that included firing missiles into waters about 30 kilometers (20 miles) away. ) from Taiwan. coast before the first popular presidential elections in Taiwan.
The United States responded with its own show of force, sending two groups of aircraft carriers to the region. At the time, China had no aircraft carrier and few means to threaten American ships, and it backed down.
Stung by the episode, China embarked on a massive overhaul of its military and, 25 years later, has significantly upgraded missile defenses that could easily counterattack, and has equipped or built its own aircraft carriers.
The recent US Department of Defense report to Congress noted that in 2000, it assessed China’s armed forces as “a sizeable but mostly archaic army,” but that today it is a rival, having surpassed the US military in some areas, including shipbuilding to the point. where it now has the largest navy in the world.
Counting ships is not the best way to compare capabilities (the US Navy has 11 carriers vs. China’s two, for example), but in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, China could deploy almost all of its naval forces. and it also has land-based anti-ship missiles to add to the fight, said Boyd, a co-author of the IISS annual Military Balance assessment of the global armed forces.
“The concept of China’s operations with respect to Taiwan is that if they can delay the US presence in the fight, or restrict the numbers that they can put into the fight because we can keep their future assets at some level of risk, they can beat the Taiwanese before the Americans come forward strong enough to do something about it, “he said.
Taiwan’s own strategy is the mirror image: delay China long enough for the United States and its allies to come forward strongly. It has significant military forces in itself and the advantage of fighting on its own territory. A recent policy document also points to the need for asymmetric measures, which could include things like missile strikes against mainland Chinese ammunition or fuel depots.
The Taiwan defense department’s assessment of China’s capabilities, presented to parliament in August and obtained by The Associated Press, says China already has the ability to seal off Taiwan’s ports and airports, but currently lacks the transportation and support. logistics for large-scale joint landing operations, although it is improving day by day.
In a new strategy-oriented policy last week, US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro identified China as the “most significant” long-term challenge.
“For the first time in at least a generation, we have a strategic competitor that has naval capabilities that rival ours and that seeks to aggressively employ its forces to challenge the principles, alliances and prosperity of the United States,” the newspaper said.
China, during its National Day weekend earlier in the month, sent a record 149 military aircraft to southwest Taiwan in strike group formations, into international airspace but into the island’s buffer zone, which led Taiwan to scramble its defenses.
On Monday, China announced that it had conducted beach assault and landing drills in the mainland province directly off Taiwan.
Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the mainland Chinese government, justified the actions as necessary, saying on Wednesday that they were prompted by “Taiwanese independence forces” in collusion with “external forces.”
“With every step, the Chinese are trying to change the status quo and normalize the situation through this cut of salami,” said Hoo Tiang Boon, coordinator of the China program at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They know there is nothing Taiwan can do about it, and the danger is that there is a possibility of miscalculations or mishaps.”
Taiwan and China split in 1949 amid a civil war, with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists fleeing to the island as Mao Zedong’s communists came to power.
In a 2019 defense white paper, Beijing said it advocates the “peaceful reunification of the country,” a phrase Xi repeated over the weekend but is also unequivocal in his goals.
“China must and will meet,” the newspaper reads. “We do not promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option to take all necessary measures.”
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, meanwhile, has been advocating greater global support, writing in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that “if Taiwan fell, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the system of democratic alliances. . ”
“Not defending Taiwan would not only be catastrophic for the Taiwanese,” he wrote. “It would overthrow a security architecture that has allowed peace and extraordinary economic development in the region for seven decades.”
US law requires that it help Taiwan maintain a defensive capability and treat threats to the island as a matter of “grave concern.”
Washington has recently recognized that US special forces are on the island in training capacity, and has been intensifying multinational maneuvers in the region as part of a declared commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” They included an exercise involving 17 ships from six navies – the United States, Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand off the Japanese island of Okinawa earlier this month.
The so-called quadruple group of nations – the United States, Australia, India and Japan – concluded joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal on Thursday, which according to Japan’s Defense Ministry showed its determination to uphold “fundamental values ​​such as democracy and democracy.” . Rule of law “.
Washington also signed an agreement last month with Britain to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, which China said would “seriously damage regional peace and stability.”
“The Americans are trying to draw the allies into a united front,” Hoo said. “There is a growing internationalization of the Taiwan problem.”
Right now, neither side’s armed forces feel fully prepared for a conflict over Taiwan, but in the end it may not be their decision, Boyd said.
“It will not depend on the military,” he said. “It will depend on the politicians.”
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