Big argument: three key takeaways from latest Taiwan Strait military drills

Jun 7, 2024
China and Taiwan relationship illustration. Shadow of China's.

How should we interpret the significance of the drills? Did China overreact to Lai Ching-te’s inaugural speech?

Good evening. I’d like to introduce a fresh newsletter by Fred Gao. Fred has translated the latest episode of a renowned Chinese podcast, “Leftright,” titled “Lobbying Within the System.” In this episode, Professor Huang Dongya delves into the intricate power dynamics between various enterprises and the state, exploring how private and foreign companies influence government decisions in China. This project of translating valuable Chinese podcasts into English is something I’ve always aspired to do but lacked the time for. Fred Gao has taken it upon himself to do this work, making it worthy of attention from China watchers.

In today piece, I’m launching a new segment called “Big Argument.” This segment will focus more on perspectives compared to other types of content in this newsletter. I think those who have been following China recently would have read many comments about Taiwan, especially post the PLA military drills around Taiwan Island and during the Shangri-La Dialogue.

How should we interpret the significance of the drills? Did China overreact to Lai Ching-te’s inaugural speech? Today’s newsletter features a piece co-written with Wu Jihai, a Xinhua journalist specializing in Taiwan affairs, presenting our three reflections on the PLA’s exercises around Taiwan. You might find that some views in the article differ from the typical Western perspectives, but I believe understanding different viewpoints might be one of the reasons some of you subscribe to this newsletter.

Wu has been involved in Taiwan-related news editing for nearly 15 years, with a cumulative 34 months posted in in Taiwan. He has witnessed and reported on nearly all significant news events in Taiwan since 2014. In 2023, he published the book 变与归途 深一度看台湾 “Transition and Reunification: A Deeper Look at Taiwan,” which offers insights into Taiwan’s politics, economy, society, culture, and history education, based on his observations over the years. The book outlines Taiwan’s historical development from the Japanese colonial period to the post-1945 era. Wu aims to clearly explain “how Taiwan has gradually become what it is today” and offer some predictions on “what Taiwan might become in the future.” The book is currently available in simplified Chinese and can be purchased online. I’ve translated the table of contents below.

Three key takeaways from latest Taiwan Strait military drills

The Taiwan question is an unhealed wound of the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. It might bleed again.

On May 20, 65-year-old doctor-turned-politician Lai Ching-te assumed office as Taiwan’s new leader. He had scant time to draw breath before unveiling his true agenda, with his inaugural speech peppered with provocative statements advancing “Taiwan independence.”

Three days later, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) initiated its third military exercise surrounding Taiwan Island since 2022. The maneuvers were the most extensive to date, with droves of jets and ships edging closer to the island than ever before.

The PLA explicitly said the drills were carried out to punish “Taiwan independence” provocations and send a stern warning against external interference.

Did Beijing overreact?

To find the answer, one needs to take a closer look at Lai’s inaugural speech.

Among other provocations, he proclaimed that “the Republic of China”, “the Republic of China Taiwan”, and “Taiwan” are interchangeable, as they are all “names of our country.” It was a rhetorical leap not even attempted by his independence-minded predecessors.

The intent of Taiwan’s new leader was clear: recasting “the Republic of China” — the keyword here is China — into simply “Taiwan” to forge a distinct sovereign identity for the island.

The provocative remarks severing Taiwan’s ties to China flies in the face of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 that recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China, whose territory includes Taiwan.

Imagine if the pro-independence movement in Texas declared that the United States is equivalent to the United States Texas or Texas is not subordinate to the federal government, would Washington stand idly by?

Therefore, to the Chinese mainland, Lai’s speech was promoting the “two states” theory and attempting to justify “Taiwan independence.” This has constituted a serious provocation against the one-China principle. At the very outset of his four-year term, Lai sent a dangerous signal.

Recall the August 2022 drills triggered by Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, where she, then third in line to the U.S. presidency, met with Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen and said her visit was intended to make it unequivocally clear that the United States would not abandon Taiwan.

Both Lai’s rhetoric and Pelosi’s maneuvers spotlight two burgeoning threats: the emboldened independence factions within Taiwan and the brazen interventions by external actors.

Confronted with these provocations, Beijing must take resolute countermeasures. Failure to respond would constitute a glaring appeasement of secession aimed at “Taiwan independence” and foreign interference, risking the legitimacy of the Chinese government and the support of its people, with peace across the Taiwan Strait hanging in the balance.

That’s why there is no agitated response from the international community to the latest PLA drills. A spokesperson for the UN secretary-general reiterated that the UN is guided by Resolution 2758, which, he said, means “Taiwan is a province of China.” In Manila, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro emphasized that he would not comment on anything related to the Taiwan Strait as “it is considered an internal issue for China.

Even the staunchest critics of China have refrained from talking about the threat of an “annexation” or “aggression.” This phenomenon reflects the international community’s view that the Taiwan question is entirely different from the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Imagine if it were a sovereign island state that had been surrounded by fighter jets and warships of a foreign country, the reaction from the international community would be totally different.

From this vantage point, the recent military exercise was meant to send a strong message that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory and any separatist maneuver that crosses the line will face countermeasures and bear consequences.

Have the drills changed the Taiwan Strait status quo?

Those who ask this question might not be familiar with contemporary Chinese history or deliberately choose to disregard it. The Taiwan Strait tensions are in fact a scar left over by a full-blown civil war dating back nearly 80 years ago.

The war was fought between Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) regime. In 1949, Chiang and the remnants of the defeated KMT retreated to Taiwan. Later that year, on Oct. 1, 1949, Mao, standing on the Tian’anmen Rostrum in Beijing, proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

But the civil war never truly ended. For many years after retreating to Taiwan, the KMT vowed to “retake the mainland.” It sent military aircraft to harass the mainland’s southeastern coast, and the two sides constantly engaged in direct live-fire conflicts.

For example, in mid-July 1953, the KMT troops raided the island of Dongshan in Fujian Province, only to be fiercely countered by the PLA. On August 23, 1958, the PLA began shelling the island of Kinmen. The KMT forces returned fire. The Kinmen bombardment lasted for two decades.

The international community, the United States included, did not label these military maneuvers launched by either side of the Strait as “acts of invasion.” Rather, it recognized them as part and parcel of China’s internal strife.

In 1979, Beijing proposed peaceful reunification. Since then, direct military conflicts have largely been avoided. But no ceasefire agreement has ever been negotiated or signed, with nothing like the armistice agreement of the Korean War.

As Beijing’s overall strength continued to grow, Taiwan did cease flying its military jets across the Strait. The wounds of the civil war stopped bleeding, but the scar never fully healed.

The United States cannot label cross-Strait conflicts from 1949 to 1979 as part of the Chinese civil war on one the hand, but portray Beijing’s anti-secession efforts today as “China’s aggression against Taiwan” on the other. It is like calling it a spade today, but a fork tomorrow.

In the same vein, when the KMT planes flew across the Strait to harass the mainland coast in the 1950s, neither the United States nor Taiwan recognized the Taiwan Strait “median line.” The “line” did not exist at that time and should not exist today.

Given the ongoing status of an unresolved civil war, it should not come as a surprise when provocations by “Taiwan independence” separatists or interference by foreign countries lead to unintentional discharges.

The PLA drills should by no means be interpreted as a message sent by the mainland that it will soon forcefully reunify Taiwan. Instead, they should be seen as a clear signal of deterrence to “Taiwan independence” separatists and foreign forces trying to interfere, and a warning that in such drills, if the Taiwan side dares to use force first, the PLA will not back down and will not hesitate to strike back.

What Role Does the United States Intends to Play in Cross-Strait Relations?

The pages of history, spanning the globe and China itself, tell a recurring tale: civil conflicts among peoples bound by shared ethnicity and culture culminate in unification, rather than permanent division or independence. Unification finds its path through either peaceful negotiation or the use of force, a process commonly referred to as reunification. To label this process as “annexation” or “aggression” is a gross distortion of reality.

Sovereignty and territorial integrity are the highest principles of international law. The issue of governance patterns — be they “democratic” or “authoritarian” — cannot override this bedrock. Nor can it justify foreign interference.

Yet America flouts these norms. It needlessly involves itself in China’s Taiwan affairs.

Reckless meddling that defies history, reality and international law stokes instability in the Strait. Washington’s repeated arms sales to Taiwan, for example, violate the stipulations of the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, particularly the August 17 Communiqué of 1982, in which the United States declared its commitment to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan, with the ultimate goal of eventually ceasing these sales.

By ramping up arms sales to Taiwan, Washington interferes with China’s internal affairs and is virtually getting itself involved in the unfinished Chinese civil war.

In addition, on several occasions during his presidency, Joe Biden either misspoken or intentionally stated “Yes” in answers to the question of whether the U.S. would defend Taiwan against an attack from Beijing. In a recent interview with TIME magazine conducted on May 28, Biden once again said that he would not rule out the use of U.S. force in the event of an “invasion” of Taiwan.

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