‘Starting a Fire’: U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory over Taiwan

The 25 Chinese fighter jets, bombers and other warplanes flew in menacing formations off the southern end of Taiwan, a show of military might on China’s National Day, Oct. 1. The incursions, dozens upon dozens, continued into the night and the days that followed and surged to the highest numbers ever on Monday, when 56 warplanes tested Taiwan’s beleaguered air defenses.

Taiwan’s jets scrambled to keep up, while the United States warned China that its “provocative military activity” undermined “regional peace and stability.” China did not cower. When a Taiwanese combat air traffic controller radioed one Chinese aircraft, the pilot dismissed the challenge with an obscenity involving the officer’s mother.

As such confrontations intensify, the balance of power around Taiwan is fundamentally shifting, pushing a decades-long impasse over its future into a dangerous new phase.

After holding out against unification demands from China’s communist rulers for more than 70 years, Taiwan is now at the heart of the deepening discord between China and the United States. The island’s fate has the potential to reshape the regional order and even to ignite a military conflagration — intentional or not.

“There’s very little insulation left on the wiring in the relationship,” Danny Russel, a former assistant secretary of state, said, “and it’s not hard to imagine getting some crossed wires and that starting a fire.”

China’s military might has, for the first time, made a conquest of Taiwan conceivable, perhaps even tempting. The United States wants to thwart any invasion but has watched its military dominance in Asia steadily erode. Taiwan’s own military preparedness has withered, even as its people become increasingly resistant to unification.

Planes from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force were covered before the opening an aviation expo in Zhuhai, China, last month.Credit…Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

All three have sought to show resolve in hopes of averting war, only to provoke countermoves that compound distrust and increase the risk of miscalculation.

At one particularly tense moment, in October 2020, American intelligence reports detailed how Chinese leaders had become worried that President Trump was preparing an attack. Those concerns, which could have been misread, prompted Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to call his counterpart in Beijing to assure otherwise.

“The Taiwan issue has ceased to be a sort of narrow, boutique issue, and it’s become a central theater — if not the central drama — in U.S.-China strategic competition,” said Evan Medeiros, who served on President Obama’s National Security Council.

China’s ambitious leader, Xi Jinping, now presides over what is arguably the country’s most potent military in history. Some argue that Mr. Xi, who has set the stage to rule for a third term starting in 2022, could feel compelled to conquer Taiwan to crown his era in power.

Mr. Xi said Saturday in Beijing that Taiwan independence “was a grave lurking threat to national rejuvenation.” China wanted peaceful unification, he said, but added: “Nobody should underestimate the staunch determination, firm will and powerful ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Few believe a war is imminent or foreordained, in part because the economic and diplomatic aftershocks would be staggering for China. Yet even if the recent flights into Taiwan’s self-declared air identification zone are intended merely as political pressure, not a prelude to war, China’s financial, political and military ascendancy has made preserving the island’s security a gravely complex endeavor.

Until recently, the United States believed it could hold Chinese territorial ambitions in check, but the military superiority it long held may not be enough. When the Pentagon organized a war game in October 2020, an American “blue team” struggled against new Chinese weaponry in a simulated battle over Taiwan.

An undated photo from Taiwan’s defense ministry showing a Chinese H-6 bomber. The ministry said that H-6 bombers were among the planes that China flew recently near the island.Credit…Taiwan Ministry Of National Defense, via EPA, via Shutterstock

China now acts with increasing confidence, in part because many officials, including Mr. Xi, hold the view that American power has faltered. The United States’ failures with the Covid-19 pandemic and its political upheavals have reinforced such views.

Some advisers and former officers in China argue that the United States no longer has the will to send forces if a war were to break out over Taiwan. Under the right conditions, others suggest, the People’s Liberation Army could prevail if it did.

“Would the United States court death for Taiwan?” Teng Jianqun, a former Chinese navy captain, said in a recent interview on Chinese television.

Such posturing, in turn, ignites more tensions.

In Taiwan, China’s military provocations have bolstered political support for the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who has sought to forge ties with countries increasingly wary of China. The Biden administration is trying to bolster Taiwan’s defense capabilities and international standing, hoping to delay or prevent the need for American military intervention.

“The three sides have seen their interactions caught in a vicious spiral,” Jia Qingguo, a professor of international relations at Peking University who advises the Chinese government, recently wrote. “The process of vicious interactions between Taipei, Beijing, and Washington resembles the forming of a perfect storm.”

A ‘Historic Mission’

Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, center. Under his nationalist agenda, Mr. Xi has vowed to bring Taiwan under Chinese control.Credit…Roman Pilipey/EPA, via Shutterstock

Two days after the fall of Kabul in August, as the Biden administration scrambled to evacuate thousands stranded by the American withdrawal, China staged military exercises explicitly designed to show off its prowess.

Chinese warships fired missiles into the sea south of Taiwan, while amphibious landing vehicles swept ashore a beach in China. It was one of the largest exercises ever to simulate an invasion across the Taiwan Strait.

In previous drills, the People’s Liberation Army maintained a gauze of deniability about its imagined adversary, but this time it left no doubt. One officer on Chinese television warned the United States and Taiwan “not to play with fire on the Taiwan issue and immolate themselves.”

The question is whether Mr. Xi intends to act.

He has vowed to lead the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” including bringing Taiwan under Chinese control. Some interpret that to mean within a decade, if not sooner. His hard-line policies have made it less likely that Taiwan could ever willingly agree to China’s terms, especially after Mr. Xi throttled political freedoms in Hong Kong.

Every leader since Mao has vowed to absorb Taiwan, but Mr. Xi is the first who commands a military strong enough to make forced unification plausible, albeit still a formidable task.

Soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army during a live-fire exercise earlier this year.Credit…CNS, via Reuters

Any assault on Taiwan, which lies 100 miles off the coast, would require overwhelming military advantage. Even if Chinese forces seized control over the island of 24 million, the war would badly shake China’s economy and international relations, while exacting a significant human toll.

“Even moderate voices in Beijing have been calling for tossing out peaceful reunification,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “I think the military option is the option now.”

China’s leaders began the long, politically fraught process of overhauling the People’s Liberation Army after watching the United States put its military power on display in the Persian Gulf war against Iraq in 1990.

Six years later, they understood just how far behind their military had fallen when the United States dispatched two aircraft carriers near Taiwan in response to China firing missiles into the seas near the island. After the American show of force, China backed down.

Robert L. Thomas, a former vice admiral who commanded the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet in Japan, recalled a meeting with a Chinese admiral in 2015. The admiral told him that the 1996 confrontation still stung nearly two decades later.

The Chinese military maneuvers have bolstered political support for Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“It’s clear to me that they won’t allow themselves to be embarrassed again by a Taiwan Strait crisis where the U.S. Seventh Fleet shows up and says, ‘Everybody calm down,’” Mr. Thomas said.

Since then, China’s leaders have poured money into the People’s Liberation Army. In a decade, military spending grew by 76 percent, reaching $252 billion in 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (The United States spent $778 billion on its military last year.) Mr. Xi has also reorganized the military, raising the status of naval and air forces and pushing commanders to master joint warfare.

In an exercise last year, the military conducted a drill that simulated sealing off the Taiwan Strait from outside forces. What was unthinkable in 1996 could now be within reach.

The exercise was like “trapping a turtle in a jar,” said a website run by China’s office for Taiwan affairs.

‘A Matter of Time’

When the United States Air Force held its own war games over Taiwan in autumn last year, the outcome rattled Washington’s political and military establishment.

Ships from the U.S. Navy, left, and the U.S. Coast Guard sailed through the Taiwan Strait in August.Credit…U.S. Coast Guard, via Associated Press

In war games since at least 2018, American “blue” teams have repeatedly lost against a “red” team representing a hypothetical Chinese force — in part by design, since the exercises are intended to test officers and war planners. In a game simulating a war around 2030, reported earlier by Defense News, the “blue” team struggled even when given new advanced fighter planes and other weapons still on the Pentagon’s drawing board.

The classified game culminated with China launching missile strikes against American bases and warships in the region, and then staging an air and amphibious assault on Taiwan, according to a Defense Department official. The officials concluded that Taiwan, backed by the United States, could hold out for maybe two or three days before its defenses crumbled.

The Pentagon’s annual assessments of China’s military have since 2000 chronicled its evolution from a large but ineffective force into a potential rival. Its latest report said Chinese capabilities have already surpassed the American military in some areas, including shipbuilding, conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems. All three would be essential in any conflict over Taiwan.

“I worry that they are accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States,” Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the retiring commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before then, and I think the threat is manifest during this decade; in fact, in the next six years.”

His bleak prediction has since colored debates in Washington over what to do. Some have argued that explicit security guarantees for Taiwan are needed. Others have called for building up of military forces around China, and helping Taiwan to do the same.

Admiral Philip S. Davidson, center left, the retiring commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, told a Senate committee in March that China could try to get control of Taiwan within the next six years.Credit…Cindy Ellen Russell/Honolulu Star-Advertiser, via Associated Press

“To us, it’s only a matter of time, not a matter of if,” Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, the director of intelligence with the United States’ Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, said in a July talk, about the possibility of armed conflict over Taiwan.

It is far from clear that Taiwan is ready. Since Taiwan’s government has phased out mandatory conscription for most young men, it has struggled to sustain a professional, all-volunteer force. The state of its military has declined steadily, punctuated by a series of accidents, including a helicopter crash last year that killed its top commander.

“The training isn’t as intense as it was before,” said Chang Yan-ting, a former deputy commander of Taiwan’s air force. He said that decades of prosperity encouraged a view that the island no longer needed to maintain a heightened military alert.

“That’s in keeping with the whole tide of the times,” he added, “but certainly it has some relative strategic impact, even if there hasn’t been a war to test it.”

An internal assessment of the Chinese military by Taiwan’s defense ministry, reviewed by The New York Times, also documented the increasing challenge. China’s military, for example, has developed the capability to cripple communications around the island, the assessment found. That could hamper the arrival of American reinforcements.

“This really is the grimmest time I’ve seen in my more than 40 years working in the military,” Taiwan’s minister of defense, Chiu Kuo-cheng, told lawmakers on Wednesday. China already had the means to invade Taiwan, though still at a high price, he said. “By 2025, the cost and attrition will be squeezed lowest, and so then it could be said to have ‘full capability’.”

A military recruitment billboard in Taipei. Taiwan’s government has phased out mandatory conscription for most young men, and it has since struggled to sustain a professional, all-volunteer force.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Since coming to office in January, the Biden administration has stepped up support, continuing moves made under President Trump.

American warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait eight times in the first eight months of the year. The administration approved a new arms sale in August worth about $750 million. Since at least last year, small teams of American troops, including Marines and Army special forces, have conducted training sessions with the Taiwanese military.

The administration has also marshaled statements supporting Taiwan and criticizing China from a succession of international summits, including the Group of 7.

Chinese leaders, for their part, fear that American support for Taiwan is entrenching pro-independence tendencies. None of the American moves are entirely new, but as mutual animosity has deepened, Beijing views them as an increasingly belligerent strategy to “contain China by using Taiwan.”

The depth of American and allied assistance for Taiwan, though, has not been tested.

A fighter jet taxiing along a highway in Taiwan during military exercises last month.Credit…Taiwan Presidential Office, via Associated Press

“You get to this issue of how far are you willing to go to defend Taiwan,” said Mr. Thomas, the former Seventh Fleet commander. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I don’t know if the United States is willing to see U.S. young people coming back in body bags for the defense of Taiwan.”

Behind the scenes, Biden administration officials have expressed worry that China is trying to normalize a new baseline of hostile pressure on Taiwan, and they have deliberated on ways to slow or thwart its military development.

Mr. Biden is also trying to lower the temperature, speaking last month with Mr. Xi. On Tuesday he said he and the Chinese leader had agreed to the standing agreements on Taiwan. A day later, the White House announced that he and Mr. Xi would hold a virtual summit by the end of the year.

The two leaders know each other well. A decade ago, Mr. Biden, then vice president, went to China to size up Mr. Xi before he became the nation’s top leader.

“My father used to tell me, Joey, the only thing worse than a war is an unintentional war,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Xi, according to Mr. Russel, the former national security aide.

Mr. Russell added: “I think it is a prescient warning.”

The Taiwan Strait, with Xiamen, China, in the background, and the islands of Kinmen County, Taiwan, in the foreground. The question at the heart of Taiwan’s future is whether Mr. Xi intends to act.Credit…An Rong Xu/Getty Images

Eric Schmitt, Michael Crowley and Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.

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