In July, Xi Jinping marked the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary with an ominous pledge. “Solving the Taiwan question and realizing the complete reunification of the motherland are the unswerving historical tasks” of the party, he said.
If anyone questioned his sincerity, recent events have, unsurprisingly, eliminated all doubt. As Beijing celebrated another anniversary this week, the 72nd year of the CCP’s control of China, a record-shattering number of Chinese military aircraft crossed into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
Since the start of October, a total of 150 military planes have flown into the zone. This figure includes sorties by an incredible 56 aircraft, including twelve nuclear-capable bombers, on Monday alone. That’s a sharp uptick since September of last year, when the Taiwanese defense ministry began publicly releasing information on the sorties. Last month, 117 aircraft made incursions, according to a tally by defense analyst Gerald Brown.
These flights have yet to be accompanied by the sort of mass military mobilization that would suggest an imminent invasion of the island. But Xi and party officials are broadcasting their intent, including through a broader military buildup that has taken decades and is tailored to the task of taking Taiwan and preventing us from defending it. The recent air defense zone incursions serve at least one clear, near-term purpose — wearing down the Taiwanese military, which it forces to scramble jets, burning precious resources and presumably taking a toll on morale.
The message is unmistakable. “Threatening? Of course. It’s strange the #PRC doesn’t bother faking excuses anymore,” Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu wrote on Twitter.
Indeed, Chinese mouthpieces are completely transparent and unabashed. The CCP newspaper the Global Times quoted “experts” who said, “More will come as the PLA stands ready to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” repeating the lie that the CCP is sovereign over Taiwan.
Chinese officials cite other grievances, including U.S. efforts to shore up Taiwan’s defenses through arms sales, increased diplomatic contacts, including the arrival of U.S. officials to the island via military aircraft, and ongoing freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Strait. Elsewhere, the People’s Daily has claimed that a State Department statement issued Sunday denouncing Beijing’s aggression violates the “One-China principle,” although Washington never agreed to the idea that Beijing has a rightful claim over Taiwan.
Taken together, all of this indicates that the heightened threat is the new normal and that Beijing will only be placated by total accommodation of its designs on Taiwan.
For its part, the Biden administration has sounded the appropriate notes. In the statement that irked Beijing, the State Department had reaffirmed America’s “rock solid” commitment to Taiwan and called on Beijing to end its pressure campaign.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are still talking to the Chinese: White House press secretary Jen Psaki disclosed that officials are “in touch privately” with the Chinese. As a risk-mitigation measure, this dialogue might make sense; as a long-term solution, only a stepped-up effort at military deterrence can work.
Two U.S. aircraft carriers were in the region for exercises in the Philippine Sea last week that included a British aircraft carrier and a Japanese helicopter destroyer, among other countries’ vessels, and Taipei is certain to watch their next moves anxiously. And overall, officials still have their work cut out for them. Growing Japanese and Australian focus on participating in the defense of Taiwan are encouraging. However, unless the status quo changes, including an urgent effort to arm the Taiwanese with missiles, mines, and unmanned vehicles to make a cross-strait invasion riskier, the People’s Liberation Army stands a disturbingly high chance at succeeding at swallowing Taiwan.
Ultimately, the latest intimidation efforts fit with the party’s broader effort to isolate Taiwan by picking off its few diplomatic allies, blocking it from all participation at the U.N., launching an economic bullying campaign, and flooding the island with disinformation. This stepped-up military harassment puts the prospect of Taiwan’s engulfment by the Chinese party-state front and center. Beijing couldn’t be clearer about its intentions, and we need to respond accordingly.