The island cannot rely on American help, but armed conflict remains unlikely
CHINA HAS never renounced what it says is its right to “reunify” Taiwan by force if peaceful means are thwarted. So armies on both sides have to prepare for war, however remote it may seem. Of late the number of naval exercises China has conducted has caused alarm—all the more so at a time of worsening relations between China and America on a number of fronts, including American policy towards Taiwan. The delicate status quo, in which China insists Taiwan is part of its territory but the island functions as an independent country, is fraying. As the Global Times, a tub-thumping official Chinese tabloid, puts it: “The possibility of peaceful reunification is decreasing sharply.” Mercifully, that does not mean war is imminent.
On August 28th Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, attended the opening of a maintenance facility for the air force’s American-made F-16 fighter jets. In her speech she said she wanted “the world to see our strong will on protecting the country”. China has been staging a series of exercises along its coast. Just in recent days drills covering three different maritime areas have included “realistic” exercises in the Taiwan Strait, at both north and south ends of the island. This follows what China’s press described as a “massive” drill in the strait earlier in the month, designed as both “clear and unprecedented deterrence” and military training. No doubt carrying the same message, on August 10th, Chinese fighter jets crossed the median line in the strait, the unofficial air border.
The drills seem intended to remind Taiwan and America of just how seriously China treats its “sacred mission” of bringing Taiwan back under its sovereignty, but also to flaunt China’s fast-improving military capability. On August 26th it reportedly launched what is said to be the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile, nicknamed “the aircraft-carrier killer”. That followed what China said was an intrusion by an American spy-plane over a Chinese naval exercises, and visits to the sea by American aircraft-carriers.
It is hard not to see this flaunting of military prowess as part of a more assertive Chinese approach to its region. That has been evident in the South China Sea, where it has been steadily building up a military presence in waters disputed in whole or part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China’s claims in the sea have been rejected both by an international tribunal in 2016 and, just last month, by America. Meanwhile, to the north, off China’s east coast, Japan has accused China in recent months of a “relentless” campaign to seize control of the tiny, uninhabited, Japanese-administered Senkaku islands (known in China as Diaoyu).