by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: US Department of Defense/CC
RECENT MOVES by China suggest that China is stepping up military action aimed at intimidating Taiwan. This includes frequent incidents in which Chinese fighter planes have entered into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, the unilateral declaration by China of the M503 civilian flight route which would pass along the center of the Taiwan Straits, and sailing China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, through the Taiwan Straits. It remains up in the air was to what Taiwan aims to accomplish through increased efforts aimed at intimidating Taiwan.
China suspended diplomatic relations with Taiwan after it became clear that Tsai Ing-Wen would not acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, which states that there is “one China,” but that the ROC and PRC disagree on the definition of that China. And so, relations between Taiwan and China have been chilly for a long time, something which was not aided by periodic incidents of aggression from China such as the kidnapping of Taiwanese human rights NGO worker Lee Ming-Che and a subsequent show trial in China.
It could be that Xi Jinping has simply consolidated power after the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October of last year and so this emboldens him to take more drastic military actions regarding Taiwan. Indeed, the scaling up of intimidation attempts by China, particularly by airplane, have grown by a sufficient extent to the degree that the Taiwanese military announced that it will no longer publicize Chinese intrusions in Taiwanese aisprace.
Nevertheless, it is a question as to what China attempts to accomplish through scaled up intimidation attempts. Seeing as cross-strait relations could not really get any worse than their previous state under China suspended diplomatic communications with Taiwan after the Tsai administration refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, it is likely that China is hoping to influence the course of Taiwanese politics in order that the China-friendly KMT will do well in 2018 elections.
China may be banking on that Taiwanese will once again become afraid of the military threat of China and vote the KMT into power with the belief that it is the only party which can maintain stable relations with China. China may hope that this puts political unification by peaceful means back on the table in Taiwanese politics, utilizing the intermediary of the KMT to facilitate such unification. There are precedents of China attempting to use military threats to try and influence Taiwanese elections, most notably in the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis preceding 1996 presidential elections.
At the same time, if this China’s aim, this seems unlikely to happen. One can hardly imagine anything on the scale of the 1992 Taiwan Straits Crisis leading to panic in Taiwan now. Taiwanese politics currently seems far more preoccupied by domestic issues, such as outrage over the Tsai administration’s passage of controversial changes to the Labor Standards Act.
It could simply be that domestic issues are a larger concern at present. One observes that Taiwanese activists mobilized in demonstration against the Chinese M503 flight route in 2015, when China first announced the route, but this did not happen this time. It is to be noted that such demonstrations took place when the Ma administration was still in power, but it also generally seems that the conditions were not right for protest right now. Taiwanese civil society may be concentrating its focus primarily on the labor law issue for there to be large-scale demonstrations regarding other issues.
In fact, few really seem to be paying attention to increased Chinese military threats in Taiwanese. It may simply be that through continual attempts to try and intimidate Taiwan in recent years, Taiwanese have become used to Chinese threats, and no longer take them all that seriously. This would be ironic, but also not surprising, perhaps reminding one of how South Korea tends to be rather numb to missile threats from North Korea in a manner which surprises many foreign observes because they have become an everyday fact of life.
In the meantime, it is possible that in the face of lacking reactions from Taiwan, China will attempt to escalate intimidation attempts further. Yet, ironically, weak responses from Taiwan may be the way to call China’s bluff. In reality, China has little ability to attack Taiwan. This is not only due to the beyond acceptable losses it would suffer if it attacked Taiwan and the resulting crisis of legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party after what would almost certainly be heavy loss of life from a naval invasion, but also because the precarious state of the Chinese economy means that the Chinese economy could not weather the regional economic crisis which would result from a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
And so, if China is unable to escalate intimidation attempts directed at Taiwan further, because it simply truly cannot attack Taiwan currently, China may have no option but to back down from intimidation efforts. If so, this would be highly ironic. This would be one of the many ways in which China is a paper tiger, so to speak.