Taiwan’s defense minister said the island is facing the worst military tensions with China in four decades, after Beijing sent a record number of fighter jets to Taiwan’s air defence zone.
Taiwan has counted 149 Chinese warplanes in its Air Defense Identification Zone since Beijing celebrated China’s National Day on Oct. 1. A record number of 56 military jets were recorded on Monday, according to Taiwan’s military.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party views Taiwan, a democracy and close ally of the United States, as its own territory and has threatened to take it back by force. With Beijing growing more assertive in territorial disputes under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the heightened military activities again fueled fear of a war.
The island’s defence minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, told lawmakers on Wednesday the security threat was the most serious since he joined the military 40 years ago. He expected Beijing to have “full-scale” capability to invade Taiwan by 2025.
“We will not provoke in any way,” Chiu said. “But if we are provoked, we will make full use of our abilities.”
Taiwan’s air defense zone covers areas beyond its territory and overlaps with parts of mainland China. Chinese warplanes’ maneuvers inside the Taiwanese side of the defense zone are long seen as warning signals to Taiwan.
In a Sunday statement, the U.S. State Department called Beijing’s military activity “destabilizing,” and stressed its “rock solid” commitment to Taiwan. China’s foreign ministry responded by blaming the tensions on the U.S., and demanded Washington stop supporting “separatist forces” in Taiwan.
Wen-Ti Sung, a Taiwan expert with the Australian National University, said Taiwanese people, familiar with Beijing’s frequent military harassments, largely perceive the latest flight incursions as a propagandist show of force rather than drums of an imminent war.
The leadership under Xi could be using the military aggression to generate “rally-around-the-flag sentiment” at home and also pressure Taiwan’s more Beijing-friendly opposition party into following its lead, Sung said.
“While people don’t think it was imminent, they do think that the risk of war is gradually increasing and that the military balance between Taiwan and China is evolving in a direction that’s in Beijing’s favor,” he said. “So to manage that, Taiwan is actively trying to both boost its own defense abilities, as well as find more international like-minded partners who can help contribute to Taiwan security.”
A majority of Taiwan’s 23.5 million people reject unification but also understand the island, if left on its own, would struggle to fend off the strong military power next door.
In an essay published on Foreign Affairs this week, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen highlighted the island’s contribution to the global economy and democratic development.
“If Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system,” she wrote. “It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.”
Asked about China’s military provocations this week, President Joe Biden said he and Xi had agreed to abide by “the Taiwan agreement,” although observers have argued over exactly what that means.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan raised the Taiwan issue with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, at a meeting in Zurich on Wednesday, according to the White House. China’s foreign ministry said the two sides agreed to avoid conflicts, but Yang had reiterated that the U.S. should stop using Taiwan to interfere with Chinese affairs.
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