Taiwan has become the latest Asian state to scramble aircraft in response to Chinese military operations in the waterways dividing the region.
China’s first and only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, as well as accompanying naval vessels, entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Wednesday, prompting the Taiwanese Defense Ministry to send a Naval Frigate and a group of F-16 fighters to the region to “surveil and control” the Chinese ships as they passed through the body of water that separates Taiwan from China.
Tensions between China and Taiwan have been particularly high since Beijing suspended formal communications with the state they consider to be a part of China last June. Taiwan’s Minister of Mainland Affairs, who is responsible for policy as it pertains to China, emphasized that Taiwan has the means to defend themselves if encroached upon by China’s military, but stressed that there was no reason to overreact to the presence of the carrier.
“I want to emphasize our government has sufficient capability to protect our national security. It’s not necessary to overly panic,” said Chang Hsiao-yueh. “On the other hand, any threats would not benefit cross-Strait ties,” she added.
China responded by emphasizing that they did not violate Taiwanese territorial waters, and that use of the Taiwan Strait is a matter of practicality, rather than military posturing.
“The Taiwan Strait is an international waterway shared between the mainland and Taiwan. So, it is normal for the Liaoning to go back and forth through the Taiwan Strait in the course of training, and it won’t have any impact on cross-Strait relations,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said before adding that China’s ships “couldn’t always remain in port.”
Of course, nothing in the international theater can be so simple, as China has continuously pushed the boundaries of their claims over the South China Sea, which boasts a significant $5 trillion in trade annually over the body of water. Naval exercises and bomber flights over the region cannot simply be seen as routine behavior amidst contradictory claims over control of the waterway made by China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as increasing military tension between China, India and Japan.
“It’s a show of force, and I think it is intended in part to intimidate, and that’s worrisome from the U.S. and Taiwan’s point of view because we don’t know how much more they are going to ratchet up these pressures and tensions,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, who works as a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and recently addressed the issue with the New York Times. “If the Trump administration does see this as a test of U.S. resolve, I suspect they’ll push back pretty forcefully.”
Taiwan has been independently governed since 1949, but Beijing still considers the state to be a Chinese province. America has historically honored China’s suppositions regarding the rule of Taiwan, but President Elect Donald Trump chose to accept a phone call from current Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen, soon after winning the American election, resulting in political backlash from the Chinese. In China’s mind, accepting such a call was a form of recognition of an independent Taiwan, a cause many believe Tsai Ing-wen hopes to advance.
An official statement from Mark C. Toner, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said that the United States has no qualms with the Chinese carrier passing through international waters as long as the transit is conducted in accordance with international law.
On Monday, fighter jets from both South Korea and Japan were scrambled to intercept a flock of Chinese military aircraft, including six bombers, conducting training near their territorial waters.
“When China was militarily weaker, Japan considered that area to be its backyard,” Ni Lexiong, a naval affairs researcher at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, told reporters. “This was a way of telling Japan that if there ever is conflict, the location of any future battle space won’t be decided by you and America. We have the initiative. So Japan, don’t think of meddling further afield in Taiwan or the South China Sea.”
China will likely continue to expand its military presence in the region as it works to establish a more dominant role in the management of the South China Sea. Donald Trump, who has frequently spoken out against elements of the Chinese government, may soon be forced to make a decision regarding the security of American allies in the region, particularly as China’s tension with India has recently prompted them to offer Pakistan assistance in the construction of nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missiles.
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