Taiwan Strait Tensions Are Strengthening US Security Alliances in Asia—and Fueling Beijing’s Fears of “Encirclement”

Taiwan Strait Tensions Are Strengthening US Security Alliances in Asia—and Fueling Beijing’s Fears of “Encirclement”

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Taiwan Strait Tensions Are Strengthening US Security Alliances in Asia—and Fueling Beijing’s Fears of “Encirclement”

The state of China-related discourse among America’s traditional European allies was mixed throughout the month of April, as evidenced by French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments on Taiwan, and the dovish official China policy speech by UK Foreign Secretary James Cleveland. However, the picture among America’s Asian allies—and specifically, its treaty security allies in the Indo-Pacific—was quite different. In April, US treaty allies Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines—each led by relatively new executive administrations, which have assumed office within the past 18 months—all demonstrated continued intent to strengthen their security relationships with the United States. Furthermore, senior officials in these states have demonstrated an increasing willingness to identify rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait as the reason for these decisions—while also publicly criticizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC), either directly or in more muted terms, as the instigator of these rising tensions. Beijing’s increasingly heated rhetoric towards these states—and in some instances, its increasingly provocative coercive behavior—indicates that it is alarmed by these tightening relationships. As a result, Beijing is likely to work to prevent further developments in what it perceives to be a US-led “encirclement” of China.

Japan Links Changes in Defense Policy to Concerns Over Chinese Behavior

The Japanese government has been a treaty security partner of the United States since the 1950s, and has long maintained one of the most capable militaries in the region. However, it has traditionally been reticent to take forceful stances on regional security challenges. This posture began to shift under the tenure of the late Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (in office 2006-2007 and 2012-2020), but has shifted still more dramatically in recent months in response to the PRC’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the region.  

In December, for the first time in a decade, the Japanese government released a revised National Security Strategy (NSS). The new NSS described Japan’s security environment as “as severe and complex as it has ever been since the end of World War II.” It clearly tied this alarming state of affairs to PRC actions in the region, particularly its coercive pressure against Taiwan:

China has been intensifying its military activities in the sea and airspace surrounding Taiwan, including the launch of ballistic missiles into the waters around Japan. Regarding peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, concerns are mounting rapidly, not only in the Indo-Pacific region including Japan, but also in the entire international community. […] China’s current external stance, military activities, and other activities have become a matter of serious concern […]

In recent months, Beijing has clearly signaled its displeasure with the moves by Japan’s government to increase its defense budget and further buttress security ties with the United States. To cite one example, in January the PRC tabloid Global Times asserted that Japan’s policy shift was aimed at “containing China,” and that it was another example of Japan “continuing to exaggerate the ‘China threat theory’ to cover up its own military expansion and preparations for war.” It also asserted that Japan’s defense build-up portends an aggressive military posture in the region: “Japan is no longer willing to act just as a ‘solid shield’ but now wants to play the role of a ‘sharp spear,’ and the US has given strong support for this.”

The Japanese government made further statements in April confirming its new posture, as well as its concerns over Taiwan. In comments before the Diet on April 6, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio told lawmakers that “Peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait [are] important, not just to Japan’s security, but also to the stability of the entire international community.” 

South Korea’s New President Speaks More Openly About Taiwan

Since the Republic of Korea (ROK) shifted diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC in 1992, Seoul has generally taken a deferential position to Beijing—a stance due not only to China’s military and diplomatic prominence in the region, but also to its status as South Korea’s largest trading partner. Accordingly, South Korean governments have traditionally been loath to upset Beijing. This has entailed maintaining a difficult balancing act between China on the one hand, and the United States, their treaty ally and primary security partner, on the other.  

This has changed more recently under the administration of ROK President Yoon Suk-yool, who has indicated concern over the PRC’s increasingly aggressive posture in the region. In an interview with Reuters on April 18, President Yoon stated that the rising tensions surrounding Taiwan were the result of the PRC’s coercive pressure against the island, and its efforts to change the status quo by force. He also identified Taiwan as a matter of international concern, stating that “The Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue.”


Image: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and US President Joseph Biden holding a meeting in the White House during Yoon’s visit to Washington, April 2023. (Image source: UPI)

These comments drew harsh condemnation from PRC officials. Speaking at a PRC Foreign Ministry press conference on April 20, spokesperson Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) responded to a question about Yoon’s comments by once again blaming any tensions in the Taiwan Strait on “’Taiwan independence’ separatists” and “foreign forces,” and opined that “We hope the ROK side will follow the spirit of [China-ROK relations], stay committed to the One-China Principle, and prudently handle matters related to the Taiwan question.”

Wang followed this up at the press conference on April 21, when he commented on the diplomatic spat with the ROK by stating that China has made serious démarches to the ROK side in Beijing and Seoul respectively regarding the ROK side’s wrong remarks on the Taiwan question […] and urged the ROK […] to be prudent about its words and actions when it comes to the Taiwan question.” 

However, the angry responses from the PRC apparently did little to sway the Yoon Administration. In the course of an official state visit to Washington DC in the last week of April, President Yoon and US President Joseph Biden issued a joint statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the formal alliance between the two countries, which touched upon multiple policy issues of mutual concern, including security issues in the Indo-Pacific region. This included a direct statement on Taiwan, which implicitly but clearly criticized the PRC’s coercive military activities in the region:

The Presidents reiterated the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of security and prosperity in the region. They strongly opposed any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific, including through unlawful maritime claims, the militarization of reclaimed features, and coercive activities. 

In response to the joint statement, on April 27 Liu Jingsong (劉勁松), director-general of the Department of Asian Affairs within the PRC Foreign Ministry, reportedly summoned ROK embassy minister Kang Sang-wook for a formal protest, once again stressing Beijing’s “stern position on Taiwan and other issues.” In a press conference the same day, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning () commented on the US-ROK joint statement by again asserting that “the Taiwan question is purely an internal affair at the core of China’s core interests […] that brooks no interference from anyone;” claimed that it was external forces interfering in the situation […] who are responsible for undermining the status quo;” and urged “the US and the ROK to see the true nature of the Taiwan question, follow the One-China Principle, be prudent when it comes to the Taiwan question, and avoid going further down the wrong and dangerous path.” [1]

For its part, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) issued a statement on April 27 that praised the US-ROK position, stating that: 

The US-ROK leaders’ joint statement underscores the high degree of consensus among the international democratic community on maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, which are of great significance to global interests and must be jointly safeguarded by democratic partners. MOFA will continue to work with the United States and other like-minded partners to uphold democratic values and maintain peace, stability, and prosperity across the Taiwan Strait and the region.

The Philippines Turns Toward a Closer Relationship with the United States

The government of the Philippines has also become more outspoken about the rising tensions in the region in relation to Taiwan. While US-Philippines ties grew strained during the earlier phase of the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte, relations between the two countries—as well as between the Philippines and Japan—have grown increasingly close since President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. assumed office in June 2022. 

Throughout Marcos’s tenure, relations with the PRC have been increasingly strained by maritime incidents between the two countries, frequently involving complaints of aggressive and hazardous behavior by PRC Coast Guard vessels directed against both Philippines Coast Guard and commercial fishing vessels. However, the rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait have also played a significant role in further straining PRC-Philippines relations. During a visit to Japan in February 2023, while discussing regional security matters and growing military ties with both Japan and the United States, President Marcos stated:

When we look at the situation in the area, especially the tensions in the Taiwan Strait, we can see just by our geographical location, should there in fact be a conflict in that area, it’s not very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved […] we feel that we’re very much on the front line. […] Perhaps because […] the temperature in the region has slowly ratcheted up, we have to also, as a response, be more judicious in making sure that we are defending properly our sovereign territory.


Image: Philippines Coast Guard personnel observe a PRC Coast Guard vessel during an encounter in the South China Sea on April 28. The incident reportedly involved unsafe maneuvering by the PRC vessel, and a near collision between the two vessels. (Image source: AFP/Firstpost)

The issue of Taiwan was raised once again in mid-April when the PRC ambassador in Manila, Huang Xilian (黃溪連), attracted further controversy by stating that agreements to expand military base access for US military personnel between the Philippines and United States had “caused widespread and grave concern among Chinese people.” Huang went on to make comments that were widely interpreted as veiled threats to the large population of Filipino migrant workers in Taiwan. (For a more detailed discussion of this matter, see “Chinese Ambassador’s Remarks Highlight the Growing Importance of Philippines to Taiwan Security” by Thomas Shattuck, elsewhere in this issue.) President Marcos has indicated intent to seek clarification from Huang regarding the meaning of his remarks.

The trend of closer defense ties between the United States and the Philippines saw further progress at the beginning of May, with a visit by President Marcos to the White House. This trip was accompanied by announcements regarding new military cooperation measures—to include the adoption of new “Bilateral Defense Guidelines” intended to facilitate interoperability between the two militaries, and the transfer of three C-130H transport aircraft and four naval patrol vessels to the Philippine Armed Forces. The visit also produced a joint statement that “reaffirm[ed] the United States’ ironclad alliance commitments to the Philippines,” including in cases of “an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea.” The statement also affirm[ed] the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element of global security and prosperity.” 


The steadily rising state of tensions over Taiwan—which have been building steadily over the past few years, but escalated dramatically in the face of provocative PRC military activity in 2022—are reinvigorating traditional US security relationships in the Indo-Pacific. While many states in the region no doubt prefer to take a neutral stance amid growing US-PRC tensions, the three US treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific—Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines—have all recently shown increased willingness to reinforce their security relationships with the United States. Furthermore, these three states have shown stronger inclination to directly link changes in their defense policies with their concerns over Chinese actions and the tensions in the Taiwan Strait. 

All of this is no doubt playing very badly in Beijing. Anxieties regarding a US-led diplomatic and military “encirclement” (包圍) of China have long been a prominent theme in CCP discourse (see examples here and here). From Beijing’s perspective, the recently announced measures to reinforce the security ties between the United States and its three treaty allies are doing more than simply throwing further potential roadblocks in the path of Beijing’s irredentist designs on Taiwan: they are also tightening the net of US-led “encirclement” around China.

The steadily escalating trends of PRC “wolf warrior” diplomacy and military coercion are serving to bring about the very “encirclement” that the CCP’s paranoid worldview has long inveighed against. The CCP leadership itself seems to be unwilling either to recognize the effects of its own actions, or else to consider appropriate changes in policy direction. As the PRC continues to escalate both its menacing military exercises and its transgressive gray zone operations in the Indo-Pacific, the defense ties between the United States and its allies may be expected to strengthen even further.

The main point: Recent months have seen noteworthy measures to strengthen the security relationships between the United States and its three treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific: Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. The leaders of these three states have shown increased willingness to link changes with their security policies to their concerns regarding the increased tensions over Taiwan. Beijing is likely to interpret these closer relationships as further evidence of a US-led effort to “encircle” China.

[1] For good measure, Mao also described the US involvement in Korea as “a source of tension through exploiting the issues on the Korean Peninsula,” and that “The US behavior is a result of its Cold War mentality,” which “stokes bloc confrontation,” and “increased tensions on the peninsula and jeopardized regional peace and stability.” See: People’s Republic of China Foreign Ministry, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning’s Regular Press Conference on April 27, 2023″ (press release), April 27, 2023, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202304/t20230427_11067845.html.