xi jinping

The Trump Administration has confirmed the impending sale of F-16V fighter jets to Taiwan, something against which China has long pushed. In an apparent response to the move, the People’s Liberation Army last Sunday flew its own jets into Taiwan’s airspace — a country China continues to regard as an errant province. The incursion lasted a full 10 minutes and was the most serious such incident in many years.

Taiwan’s democratically elected President Tsai Ing-wen appears to have had enough of Beijing’s sabre rattling, which has stepped up markedly since she was elected in May 2016. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party is far less Beijing-friendly than the rival Kuomintang Party which held power for eight years prior to her victory. After Sunday’s events, she has now threatened to “forcibly” turn away any Chinese jets that follow suit.

The US is obligated to help defend Taiwan although this has never been tested. This mounting situation has the potential to upend trade talks between the US and China, and underscores Australia’s invidious position — trapped between the two superpowers on trade and defence. 

While attention in recent years has been focused on China’s successful adventurism in the South China Sea where it has converted rocky reefs (many of them permanently submerged) into man-made islands, it is Taiwan itself that is the potential hotspot.

Initially, Chinese leader Xi Jinping promised that the new “islands” in the South China Sea would not be militarised, but it was not long before satellite photos of airstrips, aircraft and naval vessels dismissed his fib. Additionally, since coming into power, Xi has ramped up rhetoric about (re)claiming Taiwan. Earlier this year he explicitly said that China would not “abandon the use of force” and retained the option “of taking all necessary measures” to secure Taiwan.

Perhaps in response, in March the US Navy destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur and the Coast Guard cutter USCGC Bertholf sailed through the Taiwan Strait, a move seen in Taiwan as a show of support.

“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the US military said in a statement. “The US will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”

Following this, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that Beijing had already lodged “representations” with the United States. He added China had urged the US to “cautiously and appropriately handle the Taiwan issue to avoid harming Sino-US relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan strait”.

As America’s trade relationship with China has deteriorated under Donald Trump, pro-Taiwan sentiment appears to be on the rise. Trump was the first US President to speak directly with a Taiwanese president when Tsai called to congratulate him on his 2016 election victory, only six months after her own win. US National Security adviser John Bolton issued what could be seen as a challenge before his own appointment by calling for Beijing’s “one China policy” to be revisited.

All of this has seen many defence analysts voice growing concerns about the situation, with Richard N. Haass from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute describing a China/Taiwan confrontation as “looming”:

For the US, a crisis could require coming to Taiwan’s aid, which could lead to a new cold war or even a conflict with the mainland. A decision, though, to leave Taiwan to its own devices would undermine US credibility and possibly prompt Japan to reconsider its non-nuclear status and alliance with the US.

Many, including the Australian Defence apparatus see China as threat — as highlighted by outgoing Defence Minister Christopher Pyne in a January speech in Singapore that so upset Beijing — but we are likely to have deafening silence on this from both sides in the run up to the election.

As Australian coal and barley traders are pummelled by a Beijing keen to test the mettle of leaders in the election campaign, Morrison launched an attempt at a second China “reset” only to be outshone by Jacinda Ardern, who did the hard yards and flew to Beijing with assurances for Xi.

Meanwhile, Bill Shorten, desperate to mend the damage caused by NSW Labor leader Michael Daley’s “Chinese stealing Australian jobs” gaffe, grandly announced that he “welcomed the rise of China”.

With disturbances between China and Taiwan having quite an impact on Australia, just how long that welcome lasts remains to be seen.

Peter Fray

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