China is stepping up provocative activities targeting regional American allies in Asia in recent days, with an escalating number of military flights around Taiwan and the massing of more than 200 fishing ships near a disputed Philippines reef.
China also raised tensions with Japan, announcing last week that Tokyo must drop all claims to the disputed Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited island chain that Japan has administered for decades but that Beijing recently claimed as its territory.
The most serious provocation took place March 29. An exercise by the People’s Liberation Army air force that included 10 warplanes flew into Taiwan’s air defense zone is what analysts say appeared to be a simulated attack on the island. It came just three days after an earlier mass warplane incursion.
Chinese state media described both sorties as an effort to increase combat readiness and to practice a military pincer movement against the self-governing island.
“This means Taiwan island was surrounded from both west and east, with the PLA coming from different directions,” the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times reported.
The Biden administration signaled stronger diplomatic support for Taiwan last week by allowing U.S. Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland to accompany Palau’s leader on a visit to Taiwan. It was the first time an American ambassador had traveled to Taiwan since the Carter administration switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.
Publicly, both Pentagon and State Department spokesmen remained relatively quiet and issued few public statements on the rising tensions. The recent provocations appear to be a test by Beijing of the Biden administration policy of seeking to maintain the Trump administration’s tough posture toward China while asserting it seeks to rebuild alliances.
The sole comment from the Pentagon came from spokesman John Kirby who last week played down the Taiwan circumnavigation flights. “This is not activity that we haven’t seen before,” he told reporters, adding, “Nothing is changed about our commitment to aiding Taiwan in its self-defense.”
Asked whether there were concerns about the military intimidation of an American ally, another defense spokesman said: “After further deliberation, we are going to stick with Mr. Kirby’s original comments.” However, a State Department official speaking on background said there were worries among senior U.S. officials about China’s increased aggressiveness recently.
“The United States notes with concern the pattern of ongoing [Chinese] attempts to intimidate the region, including Taiwan,” the official said. “We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan.”
The PLA flights aimed at Taiwan, which took place last Monday after the island’s southeast coast, included four J-16 fighters and four J-10 fighters, an electronic warfare aircraft and a Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft. During the earlier March 26 aerial incursions, as many as 20 warplanes took part, the largest number of military aircraft by the PLA since planes began pushing into Taiwan defense airspace over the past several months.
In contrast to the low-key response last week, in January State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a statement voicing “concern” with 10 Chinese warplanes that flew into Taiwan’s defense zone.
An official of the Indo-Pacific Command said the recent flights are part of a broader attempt by Beijing to diplomatically isolate, economically constrain and militarily threaten Taiwan.
“These flights are a way to message Taiwan and their partners in the region, test Taiwan’s military response to these [air defense zone] flights, and strain the Taiwan air force’s maintenance and readiness by forcing them to respond,” the official said.
“Beijing’s authoritative messaging has increasingly grown confrontational and has linked the PLA’s military activities near the Taiwan Strait to ‘separatist’ activities in Taiwan,” the official said.
In the South China Sea, tensions are on the rise; some 220 Chinese fishing vessels appeared in the disputed Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands near the Philippines. Manila has demanded that China remove the vessels and responded by flying fighter jets over the boats that Manila says are crewed by Chinese maritime militia troops.
“We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement March 27. “There will be an increased presence of the Philippine navy and Philippine coast guard ships to conduct sovereignty patrols and protect our fishermen in the West Philippine Sea.”
The Philippines government asserts that the Chinese boats intruded on its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
The issue is a flash point. In 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced for the first time since 2012 that U.S. forces would aid the Philippines in defending against any attack in the South China Sea.
The Biden administration has not said whether it will continue that policy. On March 28, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the United States “stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the PRC’s maritime militia amassing at Whitsun Reef. We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.”
On yet another front, China’s Defense Ministry on March 31 denounced Japan following a video meeting of a maritime and air liaison conference. The Chinese insisted that the Senkakus, which China calls the Diaoyu islands, are “China’s inherent territory.”
“The Chinese side expressed strong dissatisfaction with and grave concern over a series of Japan’s negative acts against China, asking the Japanese side to abide by the basic norms governing international relations, stop smearing China, and safeguard the overall interests of China-Japan relations with concrete actions,” the ministry said in a statement.
China had no interest in the Senkakus until 1968, when a U.N. scientific report indicated there is likely oil near the islands.
China began laying claim to the islands after the U.S. agreed to return control of nearby Okinawa to Japan.
Tokyo considers the islands to be part of Okinawa Prefecture and they have been used by the U.S. military for bombing practice.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell said China has dramatically intensified aggressive operations against Taiwan, the Philippines in the South China Sea and against Japan’s Senkakus in the East China Sea since President Biden took office in January.
“While some of this can be attributed to the testing of a new American administration, the scope and scale of activity within the first island chain by the PLA is unprecedented,” said Capt. Fanell, formerly intelligence director of the Pacific Fleet. “Left unchecked and unchallenged, there is an increasing probability of a military confrontation.”
Capt. Fanell cited the increased air and naval incursion into Taiwan’s defense zones and the Chinese military circumnavigating Taiwan with both warships and bomber and fighter aircraft.
“This dangerous situation will continue to spiral out of control unless the Biden administration steps up and makes it clear in both word and deed that the U.S. will not allow Beijing to invade Taiwan,” he said.
The commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, told a Senate hearing recently there are growing concerns in the Pentagon that China will seek to take control of Taiwan by the end of the decade.
“Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before then, and I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years,” he said.
Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is committed to preventing the use of military force by China to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. The island broke from China in 1949 when Chinese Nationalist forces fled to the island when the Communists took power in Beijing.
David Stilwell, until January assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, said his major concern is Chinese disinformation and malign influence operations against the U.S.
The operations have divided the country and represent a key element of China’s warfare strategy of winning without fighting.
Mr. Stilwell said the administration should enable Taiwan to hold its ground while “we offer reciprocal challenges to a much less resilient authoritarian [Chinese Communist Party].
“Rather than let them focus on the East and South China Seas where they’re strongest, force them to defend against threats in their west, where they’re weakest,” he said.
“Go after Hong Kong’s special economic status. Be more vocal about the 2022 Olympics, etc.”
Global Times, the Chinese state media outlet, said the recent exercises near Taiwan show that the PLA is “taking possible U.S. and Japanese interventions into consideration” in any Chinese operation against the island.
Larger military exercises are expected in the future, the outlet predicted.