In 1997, the British ceded administrative control of Hong Kong to the Chinese under the “one country, two systems” stipulation that the defiantly democratic region would maintain most of its independence until 2047. Yet in violation of this pact, and after years of pressure by the Chinese Communist Party to prevent international recognition and support for Hong Kong, this June, the party forced Hong Kong to pass an extradition bill that represents the end of the semiautonomous territory’s independence. The national security law ensures that Hong Kong, which was one of the freest and most prosperous regions in the Far East, is subject to the same authoritarian restrictions on speech and commerce as the communist mainland. Now, Taiwan fears it could be next, and it is speaking out in an effort not to go so gently into that good night.
A Sept. 18 headline for an editorial run by the Global Times, a propaganda newspaper run by the Chinese Communist Party, is terrifying: “PLA Friday drills not warning, but rehearsal for Taiwan takeover.” The People’s Liberation Army is China’s military and has with increasing frequency been running what the paper calls “real-combat military exercises near the Taiwan Straits.”
While Taiwan is not formally recognized as an ally, the United States maintains relations with the East Asian country. The Chinese Communist Party sees this as “provocation.” According to the Global Times, these military exercises, which it calls “restrained,” are necessary responses to U.S. meddling. “Every time a high-ranking U.S. official visits Taiwan, the fighter jets of the PLA should be one step closer to the island,” asserted the editorial. “If the U.S. secretary of state or secretary of defense comes to Taiwan, the PLA should fly its aircraft over the island and conduct exercises above it. The missiles we test should also fly over Taiwan, even its ‘Presidential Office Building.’ If Taiwan authorities continue to act aggressively, such scenarios will definitely come true.”
But perhaps the most shocking sentence is this one: “The U.S. and Taiwan must not misjudge the situation, or believe the exercise is a bluff. Should they continue to make provocations, a war will inevitably break out.”
That tracks with what Tong Zhao of the Center for Global Security Research predicted earlier this year: If a future conflict is to start between China and the U.S., it’ll most likely be over military tensions regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea. So, when Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu tells me that Taiwan is worried China, after effectively stripping Hong Kong of nearly all of its autonomy earlier this year, is coming for it and its independence next, well, the fear is genuine.
China, after all, is a nation that can’t be trusted. And under President Xi Jinping, it has been ratcheting up its bad behavior. Thanks to Beijing, the world has a global pandemic on its hands, one that the U.S. intelligence community says could’ve been prevented had China not lied about the true numbers of its coronavirus cases and fatalities. If Beijing had reported the true scope of the outbreak there, public-health experts could’ve started sounding alarms sooner.
Instead, China did what it does best: provoke external conflict to distract from what’s going on domestically. “From Taiwan’s perspective, we are concerned that when the Chinese government is facing some domestic difficulties, out of the traditional wisdom of authoritarian regimes, they might want to create external crisis to keep the country together or to divert the domestic attention,” said Wu.
Neither are Taiwan and Hong Kong the only conflicts China has created. China has openly provoked a clash with India, along the countries’ disputed border. In June, the border saw its first casualties since 1975, after 20 Indians were killed in a skirmish with the Chinese military. All supposedly because Delhi modernized the highway that runs along its side of the Line of Actual Control.
China has been aggravating tensions with Japan by increasing the presence of China Coast Guard vessels in the contiguous zone of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. “When we look around, we have seen China engage in the East China Sea,” Wu said, sending “vessels to the disputed areas, and the Japanese government seem[ing] to have difficulties in countering that. The Chinese militarization of the South China Sea is so apparent, arming several islands against international laws.”
And at home in the mainland, Beijing has imprisoned more than 1 million Muslim-minority Uighurs in the far-west region of Xinjiang. Of course, the Chinese Communist Party maintains that the Uighurs and other Turkic minorities are free, but satellite analysis has revealed some 260 high-security concentration camps secretly built by Beijing. The party would have you mistrust your lying and deceiving eyes.
Beijing’s multidirectional aggression is now focused on Taiwan, where the Communist Party has ramped up military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and has repeatedly flown its war planes in or near Taiwanese airspace. The exact number of People’s Liberation Army incursions over the Taiwan Strait is unknown, but Taiwan’s Economic and Cultural Office in New York says that the exercises have been a daily occurrence since Sept. 17. This coincided with a visit from Keith Krach, the U.S. undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment — the second high-profile American official to visit the island in a short two–month span.
The week Krach was in Taipei, China sent a total of 37 war planes, including bombers and fighter jets, across the strait. And for three consecutive days, Sept. 21-23, China sent two military surveillance planes toward Taiwan. In early September, the military held back-to-back large-scale exercises in airspace southwest of Taiwan, with multiple air force aircraft penetrating Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone.
Taipei views these maneuvers for what they are: a “serious provocation to Taiwan and a grave threat to regional peace and stability.” China’s Defense Ministry insists, naturally, that the drills are a “necessary move responding to the current security situation in the Taiwan Strait and were meant to safeguard national sovereignty.”
Taiwan is concerned, and Taiwanese officials such as Wu want to make that concern known in the West. Like Hong Kong, China has never relinquished its claim on the democratic island. Wu fears that “Taiwan might be that easy scapegoat for China.”
“The Chinese don’t seem to be deterred,” he said, “and all of these things are worrying to us. I’m sure the Chinese are looking for the next weak link to take the next bold step.”
And so, Taiwan is trying to bolster its military and defense, doing all it can to ward off becoming the next Hong Kong. In August, President Tsai Ing-wen unveiled the island’s largest-ever military budget: a 10% increase to $453.4 billion, in New Taiwan dollars (or U.S. $15.4 billion), next year. That’s on top of a 5% increase from the year before, raising military spending to more than 2.4% of the island’s gross domestic product. This is the highest it has been since the 1990s.
Tsai has also called for a stronger “constructive security relationship” with the U.S. and other democracies. “Our 23 million people have the right to determine our own futures, which is [the] antithesis to the position Beijing has taken,” she said in a virtual address to the Washington-based Hudson Institute. “Upholding these principles requires us to be able to defend Taiwan against coercive actions. It entails backing up words with actions.”
It’s a start, but Taiwan remains outgunned. China’s military budget is 15 times that of Taiwan. The 2020 China Military Power Report notes that China spent more than $200 billion on military-related spending in 2019, nearly double its defense spending from 2010. “I have to be honest: Taiwan’s military needs to improve a lot,” Wang Ting-yu, a member of Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, told the New York Times.
It’s a sentiment backed by Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council. “Taiwan’s military is a professional military,” Hammond-Chambers told me. “But its numbers are an issue,” and while we’re “seeing real year-on-year increases, that’s still coming off a baseline that was too low in the first place. [Taiwan] needs to invest a great deal more in their defense, needs to accelerate the process.”
Foreign Minister Wu says Taiwan’s military is doing everything it can to beef up its defense systems, and that includes buying arms and other military equipment from the U.S. At the end of October, President Trump approved nearly $2.4 billion in arms sales, including up to 100 Boeing-made Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems and 400 Harpoon Block Surface Launched Missiles. That’s in addition to deals earlier that month totaling $1.8 billion for 135 Boeing-made air-to-ground cruise missiles, 11 Lockheed Martin truck-mounted rocket launchers, and six MS-110 reconnaissance pods for Taiwanese fighter jets. On Nov. 3, the State Department cleared the potential sale of four weapons-ready aerial drones for $600 million. As Wu noted, “International support is the key to deter China from launching a military action against Taiwan.” Taiwan acknowledges that its defense is its own responsibility, he said, but it’s nonetheless vital that the “international community pays clear attention to what China may do to Taiwan.” It’s “important that we’re not out there dangling alone, that we have support out there from the United States.”
For decades, Washington has acted strategically ambiguously toward Taiwan. Resisting, according to Foreign Affairs’s Richard Haass and David Sacks, “answering the question of whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China mounted an armed attack.” That policy has had two results: It has kept China at bay, unsure whether the U.S. would “remain on the sidelines” if it tried to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland. But it also kept Taipei from declaring independence, unsure of just how much support it had.
But as Haass and Sacks note, the policy of strategic ambiguity “has run its course.” After all, as Wu also stated, China is unlikely to be deterred, so “the time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.”
Trump appears to be moving in that direction. Earlier this year, he signed the TAIPEI Act (Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act) into law. Its goal is to deter Taiwan’s allies from cutting ties with the island due to pressure from Beijing, which hopes to leave 23 million free people isolated, with no friends to call for help.
What the international community needs to know, Wu told me, is that “Taiwan is a vibrant and successful democracy.” And while it might be smaller than mainland China, “we should always think of David versus Goliath. We know that democracy needs to succeed. And, therefore, Taiwan needs to succeed.”