The Buzz

China's Military Provocations Against Taiwan Are Not Mere Responses to Trump

On December 12, 2016, Taiwan's Minister of National Defense Feng Shih-kuan, a retired air force general, told the Legislative Yuan that China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force aircraft flew around Taiwan's airspace.

U.S. President Barack Obama and international media outlets have insinuated that U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's sudden and surprising pronouncements on policy regarding Taiwan are to blame for raising tension with China. More advanced thinking and management of communications would be helpful if Trump continues to implement changes in how the U.S. conducts policies.

Nonetheless, it is not helpful to say that China's provocations are "responses" to Trump. Since before the U.S. election, there has been concern that China would provoke tension and test the U.S. during the transition. That concern is heightened in the handover from laid-back Obama to the less experienced Trump. China has also provoked tensions in the East and South China seas.

China's provocations of Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the U.S., and others should not be seen as new, surprising, or as responses, but rather as part of its militarization of aggressive claims in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. China also has conducted political warfare using the media.

What is somewhat stunning is the series of quick developments involving the U.S. elections and Trump's approach to dealing with Taiwan. On December 2, Trump took a telephone call from President Tsai Ing-wen, who, like other world leaders, sought to congratulate the president-elect on his victory at the polls. Meanwhile, she remains cautious about supporting the status quo.

On December 11, Trump told Fox News Sunday: "I fully understand the 'one China' policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade." The mainstream, bipartisan U.S. view sees Taiwan not as leverage, but as an economic and security partner and a beacon of democracy in the world.

However, even before the Trump-Tsai phone call, on November 25, PLA Air Force military aircraft flew around Taiwan just outside its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) for the first time.

Significantly, Deputy Minister of National Defense Lee Hsi-ming, who is also an admiral, publicly discussed China's provocation. Lee also told the Legislative Yuan that Japan and Taiwan scrambled fighters to respond to the PLA aircraft. Lee did a real service for Taiwan's strategic communication by saying that Taiwan is well aware of China's threats, by reminding the public about those ongoing threats, and by boosting confidence in Taiwan's will to fight.

Then, for the second time, on December 10, the PLA Air Force flew four aircraft around Taiwan close to its ADIZ, but remained in international airspace. The flights appeared to be part of a long-distance training program that included more military aircraft flying over the Miyako Strait between Japan and Taiwan, and over the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.

In addition, before the eventful December, the author heard a warning in the summer, from a professor visiting from Beijing who has ties to China's officials, that China contemplated options to pressure Taiwan.  Such options include military pressure around Taiwan up to its 12-nautical mile territorial sea or airspace.  In this view, the PLA would copy the U.S. military's reconnaissance operations against China and use them against Taiwan. The PLA appears to be operationalizing this action in the air and can be expected to follow with provocations at sea.

Indeed, on January 11, China sailed its Liaoning aircraft carrier north from the South China Sea through the Taiwan Strait. While the warship stayed in international waters, it sailed in an area covered by Taiwan's ADIZ. Taiwan's military sent fighters, maritime surveillance aircraft, and frigates to monitor the situation.

In addition, when China suddenly announced its so-called "ADIZ for the East China Sea" on November 23, 2013, that provocation showed little regard for the status quo, existing ADIZs of others, or even security in the air. China's announced "ADIZ" overlapped with those of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Against this backdrop, it was not helpful for President Obama, in probably his last news conference at the White House on December 16, to parrot China's propaganda on being compelled to "respond" with threats to Taiwan. Obama seemed to be warning his successor when he said: "For China the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of 'one China' is at the heart of their conception as a nation and so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through what the consequences are." President Obama added that the question of Taiwan "goes to the core of how [leaders in China] see themselves and their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant."

Indeed, President Obama himself has changed policy, weakening the U.S. posture. It would have been helpful if he notified the U.S. Congress by last November or early December of several pending arms sales to Taiwan in compliance with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

It would be helpful if Obama explained to China the counter-narrative that even the U.S. "one China" policy consists of an evolution in how Washington conducts its policy, which is not bound by what Beijing dictates to other countries, and that U.S. policy is premised on the basis that Taiwan's status is unsettled.  Actually, U.S. policy is focused on the process, not outcome, with a resolution on the question of Taiwan that is peaceful and has the assent of Taiwan's people. It would be helpful if Obama pointed to the crux of the problem as Beijing's belligerence and lack of flexibility with Taipei.