The US and Chinese navies are on course for a possible face-off in the Taiwan Strait, in what is the most significant ramping-up of tensions since 1996, when the two countries openly talked about going to war.
Back then, the Chinese fired missiles along the strait, including one that reportedly went over the capital Taipei.
The current face-off comes with the US threatening to send a US aircraft carrier through the Strait – the relatively narrow body of water between mainland China and the island state it claims to own.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is certain to retaliate in some way – if only to maintain the support of the party that has elected him President for life, and to further bolster his hard-line China-first posturing, according to Dr Sow Keat Tok, a lecturer at Melbourne University’s Asia Institute.
Last week, the Chinese navy began live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, Taiwan has been conducting its annual large-scale military drill, also using live ammunition, and simulating a defence of the contested island from a Chinese invasion. The US hasn’t brought an aircraft carrier into the strait since 2007, as a protective show of strength. But a lot has changed since then.
For one thing, “China didn’t have a capable blue-water navy, but now it has,” Dr Tok said.
In recent months, China has taken its new aircraft carrier down the strait, an act of great political significance. “It wasn’t just a display for an international audience, but also for a domestic one,” Dr Tok said. “It was to show that China was very capable of defending itself and its territories.”
From 1949, when the Nationalist Chinese retreated to Taiwan, China “never had the capability to invade Taiwan”. The only claim it made for a long time was a rhetorical one. But in recent years, China has undergone a rapid ship-building program, and proceeded with an aggressive military build-up and appropriation of islands in the South China Sea.
The build-up has continued despite disquiet and protest from Europe, the US, Australia and denouncement from the United Nations. Less vehement, and certainly nervous protest has come from countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines which maintain their own claims to the islands.
The UK, France and Germany have recently declared their willingness to commit militarily to keep the South China Sea open as a free international shipping route.
Meanwhile, China has hotted up its rhetoric on Taiwan – which has never actually claimed independence but has resisted to submit to Beijing’s One-China policy – by threatening access to markets when companies, such as Qantas, don’t follow the Chinese line on Taiwan. Qantas has capitulated and will now refer to Taiwan as a territory and not a country.
Dr Tok, in line with other experts, doesn’t believe that the US and China will come to blows in the strait. “But it would be a significant event if China and the US came face to face on the open sea.”
Dr Tok believes that Xi Jingping will retaliate in some way, if the US follows through with its threat. The US carrier presence would be making a big statement not just about protecting Taiwan, but also the Korean Peninsula. China wasn’t yet seeking to assert itself as the most powerful national – but wanted to be seen on an equal footing with the US, Dr Tok said.
A piece published by the Lowy Institute made the point that China has not yet produced enough amphibious craft to support an invasion of Taiwan, but instead has focused on longer-range ships. It was noted that China recognises an invasion would be too costly in lives.
Dr Tok makes the point that China is for the moment winning the Taiwan conflict, at least politically. Five nations have abandoned Taiwan by rescinding its nation status, as have countless businesses. While the West postures over China’s incursions in the South China Sea, Beijing’s military build-up continues without missing a beat.
So whatever China does from now on, whatever conflicts it buys into, it doesn’t want to risk losing.