Politics & News

Growing Concerns: How Is Taiwan Strait Situation Unfolding?

After months of delays, the US Senate passed on Tuesday a new aid package to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, reported the Associated Press (AP).

The announcement of the new package has enraged China, which stated on Wednesday that such funding was pushing the island into a “dangerous situation.” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the aid “seriously violates” US commitments to China and “sends a wrong signal to the Taiwan independence separatist forces.”

Chinese Claims

China claims the entire island of Taiwan as its own territory and has threatened to take it by force, if necessary, in what it calls “reunification.” Meanwhile, the US has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the China-Taiwan issue, which is to keep both Beijing and Taipei in uncertainty about whether the US would intervene in case of a war.

Chinese navy ships and war planes launch daily incursions into waters and airspace around Taiwan. During times of heightened tensions, Beijing has launched dozens of warships and planes, many of them crossing the median line dividing the Taiwan Strait or entering Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

Military Enhancements

The US aid package covers a wide range of equipment and services, with the aim of maintaining and upgrading Taiwan’s military hardware. In another development, Taiwan has signed contracts with the US to get the latest F-16V fighter jets, M1 Abrams main battle tanks and the HIMARS rocket systems.

Moreover, Taiwan has been expanding its defense industry, by building submarines and trainer jets. It plans to commission its third and fourth domestically designed and built stealth corvettes by next month, as part of its efforts to counter the Chinese navy.

Mounting Pressures

Beijing has been mounting pressures on Taipei, in order to coerce the island. China has sought to get countries to switch their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. These efforts have reduced Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to 12 across the world.

On April 19, and ahead of the inauguration of Taiwan’s newly elected president, Lai Ching-te on May 20, China opened two new air routes, with flight paths near two islands controlled by Taipei.

These new air routes run close to the median line, raising concerns that Beijing is trying to redefine the status quo across the Strait based on its own terms. Some military analysts say that using these air routes could increase the likelihood of Chinese civilian aircraft to the east of the median line, where there are four designated no-fly zones.

Chieh Chung, a military researcher at Taiwan’s National Policy Foundation, told Voice of America (VOA) that these new flight paths would increase the difficulty of tracking activities by Chinese civilian or military aircraft in the no-fly zones.

Economic Coercion

China has used economic sanctions to increase pressure against Taiwan. According to the Atlantic Council, Beijing banned the import of several agricultural products and fish from Taiwan, in response to former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August 2022.

In December 2023, a month before Taiwan’s presidential election, China suspended 12 petrochemical products from the zero-tariff treatment under the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed in 2010 between the two sides.

In November 2023, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced that “it is looking to terminate the ECFA in full or rescind some of the preferential tax rates for Taiwanese products.”

Growing Fears

Amid raging wars in different parts of the world, in Ukraine, Gaza, the Red Sea, and between Iran and Israel, the international community could lose focus on what is happening in the Strait.

Tensions are simmering between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific region. Earlier this month, a US maritime patrol aircraft transit the Taiwan Strait, a day after the resumption of high-level dialogue between US and Chinese defense chiefs. China reacted with scrambling fighter jets to monitor the transit.

According to the Telegraph, this incident highlights the sensitivity around Taiwan, as a point of contention in the US-China relations.

Attention to the Threat

Western allies are increasingly paying attention to Beijing’s threat in the Indo-Pacific. Germany recently announced its participation in the upcoming Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest international maritime exercise. This year, about 750 personnel from 29 countries will participate in RIMPAC, underscoring its increasing significance.

The German Navy’s participation carries importance, with a rare deployment of its newest frigate and a replenishment ship. This deployment reflects a profound shift in Germany’s focus towards the Indo-Pacific, as this is one of the longest deployments carried out by the German Navy.

Japan will also join the RIMPAC 2024, by sending its two Izumo-class ships, JS Izumo and JS Kaga. These two carriers will soon be able to carry F-35 jets, including F-35B fifth generation fighters. This deployment, the largest to date, will be complemented by additional surface ships and submarines, and its main goal is to learn how to fight and work with allies.

This participation highlights how Western allies are working to enhance their cooperation in areas of strategic importance, to take some military and diplomatic burden off the US shoulder and present a united front.

Strengthening Alliances

Recognizing the growing threat, the US and Philippines have agreed, in May 2023, on new guidelines for their Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951. This step followed multiple requests by Manilla to identify the conditions under which Washington would come to its defense.

The guidelines reaffirm that an armed attack in the Pacific, including anywhere in the South China Sea, on any of their public vessels, aircraft, or armed forces, would invoke mutual defense commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty.

To enhance regional missile defense and protect against the advanced emerging threats such as the Chinese hypersonics, the US Army has deployed the Typhon air defense system to the Philippines. The Typhon system is a land-based system capable of launching the latest SM-6 interceptors, which have the ability to defend against ballistic missiles and hypersonics.

In 2023, the Philippines granted the US access to four new bases, three of them facing Taiwan, reported Axios. These bases would be vital in case of a war with China on Taiwan, owing to the Philippines strategic location.

The US military facilities in Okinawa, Japan, would also play a critical role in a war. Analysts see Japan as the most likely US ally to contribute to contribute troops to defend Taiwan.

In addition, Australia’s location would make a strategic hub to resupply US forces and launch operations in case of contingency. Canberra is strengthening military ties with Washington and announced major investments to upgrade its northern military bases and to procure nuclear submarine under the AUKUS agreement.

South Korea has boosted its military spending and cooperation with the US, in preparation for any Taiwan contingency. Seoul is unlikely to send troops to Taiwan, because it focuses on the threat from North Korea, but the US could pull some of its 30,000 troops based in South Korea.

Also, the UK and France have increased their naval presence in the Pacific, although neither has committed to defend Taiwan.

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