Despite exigencies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has continued to conduct military exercises and transits near Taiwan, suggesting that Beijing may be using the global crisis to create new facts on the ground. Since the outbreak of COVID-19—centered in Wuhan, Hubei Province—and the re-election on January 11 of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLAN) have conducted as many as 10 transits and exercises near Taiwan. On two occasions—February 10 and March 16—PLAAF aircraft, including KJ-500 AEWC aircraft and J-11 fighters, briefly crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, prompting the Republic of China (Taiwan) Air Force to scramble interceptors.
Until 2019, such deliberate incursions had been rare. On March 31, 2019, two PLAAF J-11 fighters crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, flying 43 nautical miles into Taiwan’s airspace and resulting in a harsh response from President Tsai, who vowed that future incidents would compel a “forceful expulsion.” At the time, Taiwan’s military stated that this was the first willful incursion by the PLAAF since 1999. Now, in a matter of weeks, Chinese aircraft have violated the median line on two occasions.
Subsequently, on April 9, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, escorted by two destroyers, two frigates, and a supply ship, passed through the Strait of Miyako between Taiwan and Japan on their way to a long-range training mission. While the Taiwanese government was quick to reassure the public about the safety of the island, it is clear that the Chinese transit was worrisome for Taiwanese officials.
This intense military activity indicates that despite the global pandemic, Chinese authorities have had no problem compartmentalizing—dealing with the pandemic on the one hand, while forging ahead with their efforts to intimidate Taiwan and pursue their territorial ambitions in the region. Following revelations that China had continued with its development of various features in the contested South China Sea at the height of the pandemic, reports in early April revealed that a large Chinese vessel had rammed, and sunk, a Vietnamese fishing boat in waters off the Paracel Islets. Unfortunately for all the countries involved, the lack of international criticism of China’s military activities in times of crisis has allowed it to largely get away with unbecoming behavior.
China’s decision to increase the frequency of its military exercises around Taiwan and activity in the contested South China Sea while the world copes with a pandemic suggests that Beijing does not care about the impact that such activities may have on its reputation. In fact, the Chinese leadership may regard the global crisis as providing a necessary distraction, allowing China to intensify its activities.
With regards to Taiwan, the ramped-up military activity was likely an attempt to normalize such behavior, particularly naval transits. Furthermore, the twin incursions into Taiwan’s side of the median line and violations of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone as part of the first PLAAF nighttime exercises near Taiwan on March 16 were likely intended as a challenge to President Tsai’s vow to “forcefully” expel PLAAF aircraft. Dealing with the COVID-19 crisis at home and knowing that Taiwan’s principal security guarantor, the United States, was struggling with its own response to the deadly pandemic, President Tsai probably realized that acting on that promise could expose Taiwan to Chinese retaliation without the guarantee of US support. Thus, recent PLA exercises and transits may well have been intended as tactics to signal Taiwan’s powerlessness in the face of PLA maneuvers.
In addition to highlighting Taiwanese impotence, the increase in the frequency of PLA activity near Taiwan since January has put the Tsai administration in a difficult position. No matter how it responds—by downplaying the incidents or scrambling interceptors—the end result is likely to be the same: the normalization of growing Chinese military activity in the vicinity of Taiwan.
By expanding the military component of its strategy vis-à-vis Taiwan, Beijing is signaling its discontent with the results of the January 11 elections in Taiwan—in which its favorite candidate, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), was defeated—and reaffirming its decision to coerce the democratic island nation.
The increase in PLA activity around Taiwan since the beginning of 2020 has nevertheless resulted in countervailing activity by the US military, which has responded by increasing the tempo of its own naval activity in the region and dispatches of surveillance aircraft near Taiwan. This has resulted in several sorties by the US Air Force and US Navy during the period between January and April of this year.
US RC-135W Rivet Joint and P-3 Orion aircraft have operated in areas near Taiwan since the end of March. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, US reconnaissance aircraft have, at the time of this writing, been spotted on at least 10 occasions near Taiwan since March 25, ostensibly in response to increased PLAAF activity in the area.
The response by the US military has arguably been played a key role in the reaction of the Taiwanese public to the increased activity on the part of the PLA. Despite the distraction of a serious COVID-19 outbreak in the US and infections on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the decision by the US military to intensify its operations in waters and airspace near Taiwan has created its own normalization of activity. In turn, this has allowed the United States to successfully counter Beijing’s efforts to create new facts on the ground and show, at least to the public, as if the areas surrounding Taiwan were its “internal waters.” Besides sending reassuring signals to Taiwan, US countermeasures have informed Beijing that, COVID-19 notwithstanding, the US military is still paying attention to developments in the Indo-Pacific and will not ignore Chinese attempts to exploit the crisis.
For the sake of Taiwan and regional stability, it is important that the United States continues to signal its determination to maintain a balance of power. Strength is the language which is understood by Beijing; any suggestion of weakness or sign that other, perhaps more pressing contingencies, may be leading the US military to focus its attention elsewhere is likely to be perceived by Beijing as an opportunity to advance its interests. Absent pushback, Beijing will use all the assets at its disposal to maximize its gains in times of stress.
The Way Forward
Despite battling a raging COVID-19 outbreak at home, the US government, like Beijing, has demonstrated its ability to compartmentalize and to stay the course. If the United States had not responded as it has in recent weeks, US allies and partners like Taiwan and Japan could have been forgiven for concluding that the current distracted state of the world provided an opportunity for China to change the status quo unchallenged.
Notwithstanding the destabilizing intrusions across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, the PLA is arguably well within its rights to perform transits in international waters, including on its side of the Taiwan Strait, the Strait of Miyako, and the Bashi Channel. Nevertheless, the frequency of such passages by the PLA in those waters and airspace should compel the United States, along with allies in the region, to respond in kind.
The unchallenged normalization of such activity by the PLA, while legal under international law, would contribute to Taiwan’s isolation and threaten the territorial integrity of other states (e.g., Japan’s Senkaku Islets in the East China Sea). Thus, waterways and airspace around Taiwan should not be ceded to the PLA alone. Instead, these areas should be frequented by non-Chinese forces—regional militaries as well as likeminded democracies like France, the UK, Australia, and Canada.
For its part, the Taiwanese government will need to continue to strike a balance between reaffirming its ability to defend its territory from PLA incursions and the need to avoid sparking a chain of escalation which could quickly lead to a situation where it needs to defend itself against Chinese aggression. Its room to maneuver will in large part be predicated on the level of non-Chinese military activity in the region. More than ever as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, United States and regional powers need to remain engaged and remind the Chinese leadership that adventurism will not be countenanced—even in times when non-military contingencies, such as the COVID-19 outbreak, seem to have distracted unprepared governments. Beijing has demonstrated its ability to compartmentalize in times of crisis; for the sake of regional stability, China’s opponents in the battle for influence must show that they have the determination to respond in kind.
The main point: The Chinese military has intensified its activities in the vicinity of Taiwan since the re-election of Tsai Ing-wen in January and amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Countervailing measures by the US military, despite the crisis at home, will be essential to ensure that China does not use this opportunity to create new facts on the ground in the Taiwan Strait.ing military threat and categorical in explaining what is necessary to counter it: more defense spending and a much-expanded military reserve system.