SNAPSHOT: Spike in Chinese military activity near Taiwan raises conflict concerns

28 september 2020

OVERVIEW

  • Eighteen Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan’s airspace on Friday (18 September) followed by 19 more on Saturday (19 September), according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense.
  • China’s increased military activity came during US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach’s visit to Taiwan. On 19 September, the day that Krach left Taiwan, Chinese state-linked news outlet Global Times tweeted 'Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, who pledged deeper ties with the US at a dinner for a visiting senior State Department official, is clearly playing with fire. If any act of her provacation [sic] violates the Anti-Secession Law of China, a war will be set off and Tsai will be wiped out.' 
  • The military activity also came after US Congressman Tom Tiffany on 16 September introduced legislation aimed at normalising ties with Taipei. On 17 September, Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu in an interview with French state-owned news outlet France 24 conceded the possibility of a small-scale cross-strait war, which could devolve into a larger-scale war.  
  • The ministry on Monday (21 September) said that Taiwan has the right ‘to self-defence and to counterattack.’ Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said that the recent activities would make other countries in the region more wary of China.
  • Meanwhile, the US-Indo Pacific Command on 24 September announced it will be holding joint military exercises involving at least 46,000 troops with Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and the Royal Canadian Navy from 26 October to 5 November. The exercises, dubbed 'Keen Sword,' will begin with amphibious landings on a number of Japanese islands.
  • Amid the elevated military tensions, Beijing's most opportune moment to attack Taiwan would be the week of the 3 November US elections, according to an op-ed on the US news website The Hill on 17 September by senior fellow of the US think tank Hudson Institute Seth Cropsey. 

 

ANALYSIS 

  • Prior to the weekend’s activities, Chinese military aircraft had only deliberately entered Taiwanese airspace three times since 1999, according to Taiwan and US government reports. 
  • The increased military activity in the Taiwan Strait likely prompted Taiwan's Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC) on 23 September to advise civil aviation carriers to stringently adhere to their flight paths in their so-called 'flights to nowhere', which are designed to give homebound Taiwanese a taste of travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The MOTC also advised that carriers should avoid certain areas when requesting permission from civil aviation authorities. Curbs on civil aviation around Taiwan are likely to remain, especially if the Chinese military continues its activities.
  • Meanwhile, Washington is preparing a USD7 billion arms deal with Taipei, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The signing of a comparatively large arms deal and a potential Taiwan-US free trade agreement, in combination with an increasing US naval presence in the Taiwan Strait, will likely further stoke cross-strait tensions. Taipei on 25 September reviewed directives concerning US pork imports. The review came after Taiwan's leader Tsai Ingwen on 28 August announced that Taipei would lift a ban on certain US beef and pork imports, a previous hurdle in US-Taiwan trade negotiations.
  • The editor-in-chief of Global Times has said that China will sanction senior US officials that visit Taiwan and their affiliated US companies, and in the past Beijing has imposed sanctions on firms involved in arms deals with Taiwan. More such sanctions are possible in the event of an arms deal. Although Beijing's previous sanctions relating to US-Taiwan arms deals have been ill-defined and apparently limited in effect, they would likely exacerbate US-China tensions.

 

FORECAST

  • The likelihood of a direct land-based assault on Taiwan soil by China in the short term is assessed is negligible, as this would carry more risks than rewards from political, diplomatic, security and economic standpoints. However, China is likely to engage in a show of force through its asymmetric warfare capabilities, including an escalation of cyberattacks.
  • Hacks by Chinese state-backed threat groups such as APT41 targeting the US and Taiwan are likely to intensify ahead of the 3 November US elections. The attacks will likely aim to destabilise a range of strategically significant public and private sector entities, including critical Taiwanese infrastructure. Beijing-backed groups are also likely to increase disinformation campaigns across social media networks.
  • Trigger points for escalations in cyberattacks include the potential formal recognition of Taiwan by the US government, which is assessed as low in likelihood, as well as the the signing of a US-Taiwan arms deal and free trade agreement, both of which are assessed as moderate-to-high in likelihood. Such negotiations are likely to be completed before the US elections.
  • Businesses with interests in Greater China should monitor cross-strait developments and factor potential diplomatic and commercial reprisals into their strategic planning. Reprisals include potential sanctions by China on US entities.