On Sunday morning, two J-11 fighter jets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force crossed the “median line” of the Taiwan Strait and entered the airspace of Taiwan.
In rapid response, the Taiwan Air Force immediately sent its own fighter jets together with four US-made F-16 fighters to intercept the two mainland aircraft.
After the incident, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) condemned the mainland’s provocative act, urging Beijing to stop stirring up troubles and disrupting the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.
On the surface, it was a short but intense military standoff between Beijing and Taipei, yet in reality it was a sideshow of the “triangular balance of power” among mainland China, Taiwan and the United States.
Shortly after the tense encounter, the US State Department and the Pentagon issued statements slamming Beijing for its efforts to unilaterally alter the cross-strait status quo, noting that the PLA’s action has ruined the decades-old peace, as well as the regional stability and development framework across the Taiwan Strait.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted: “Chinese military provocations won’t win any hearts or minds in Taiwan, but they will strengthen the resolve of people everywhere who value democracy. The Taiwan Relations Act and our commitment are clear.”
In our opinion, the latest incident can be seen as a sign of Beijing’s diminishing patience with the pace with which cross-strait reunification is proceeding in recent years, or else Chinese President Xi Jinping wouldn’t have hastily put forward the “one country, two systems” proposal for Taiwan.
Besides, as China’s “sharp power” has grown, the latest provocation mounted by the PLA could have been intended to test: 1) Taiwan’s capability to respond to airspace infringement, including how much time it takes for its air force fighters to take off in an emergency situation, and 2) whether the US would come to Taiwan’s rescue as promised.
According to the statistics released by the Taiwanese military, PLA aircraft already flew around the island 23 times over the past year or so, not including the fighter jet incursion on Sunday.
Apparently, Beijing didn’t keep on doing this just to “demonstrate its sovereignty” over Taiwan. Rather, it could have been a carefully planned initiative to find out the exact mode of reaction towards intrusions that the Taiwanese armed forces would adopt.
However, at least for the time being, such airspace infringement operations mounted by the PLA may probably be of a symbolic nature only.
Beijing still remains very mindful of the risk of drawing the intervention of US aircraft carrier battle groups if it appears overly aggressive in its coercive operations against Taiwan.
The US House of Representatives has not only passed the Taiwan Travel Act, but US President Donald Trump has also signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which stipulates that the defense secretary should enhance bilateral cooperation and consultation with his Taiwanese counterparts in order to improve the island’s self-defense capabilities.
Boosting Taiwan’s defense capabilities doesn’t necessarily mean the US has to directly deploy troops. For example, stepping up arms sales to Taipei regardless of Beijing’s objections can prove a viable option to achieve this goal.
When Tsai stopped over in Hawaii during her recent visits to her South Pacific allies, she confirmed that her government had already made a request to Washington for the sale of F-16B fighters and M1 tanks.
After what happened on Sunday over the Taiwan Strait, we estimate that it is very likely the US Congress would approve the arms deal.
Some US think tank research fellows have even suggested that Taiwan purchase the more advanced F-16V fighter jets as soon as possible, and that the American government consider selling the state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighters to Taipei.
We believe if Beijing continues to flex its military muscles over the strait, such action would only backfire on its plan to implement the “one country, two systems” in Taiwan.
Also, the localist pan-Green coalition would always prove the biggest beneficiary whenever Beijing tries to influence Taiwan through coercive propaganda or military provocations.
The Taiwanese are set to elect their new president in January 2020. So far the Kuomintang (KMT) maintains a slight lead over the ruling DPP in poll results.
And if Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu eventually seals his candidacy, it is widely believed that the KMT would stand a much bigger chance of winning the race.
But the fact that two PLA fighter jets crossed the Taiwan Strait’s “median line” again on Sunday would inevitably boost Tsai’s popularity vis-à-vis Han.
No wonder it is often said in Taiwan that Beijing always turns out to be the biggest cheerleader for the DPP in the island’s elections.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 3
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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