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US insists it will operate around Taiwan despite pressure from China

The Biden administration pledges to continue navigating warships through the Taiwan Strait and to conduct air operations in the region in response to Chinese military exercises that US officials say are evolving into a long-term strategy of heightened military pressure on the island.

Government officials said they did not want to escalate the tense confrontation, which China says was sparked by President Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island last week. But in interviews and public statements, US and Taiwanese officials made it clear that they now believe that China has used Ms. Pelosi’s visit as a pretext to ramp up its operations to intimidate Taiwan in the coming months or years, and perhaps the timetable of its plans. for establishing control over the island’s 23 million residents, just like in Hong Kong.

In a few weeks, officials said, the US Navy plans to allow ships to pass through the Taiwan Strait, ignoring China’s recent claim that it controls the entire waterway. Officials said they would not send the Ronald Reagan, the Japan-based aircraft carrier, because it would be too provocative.

Colin H. Kahl, the defense secretary for policy, told reporters this week that China was trying to “force” Taiwan and the international community.

“And all I’m saying is we’re not going to sit in the bait, and it’s not going to work,” he said.

He insisted that the United States conduct business as usual: “What we will do instead is continue to fly, sail and operate where international law allows us, and that includes the Taiwan Strait.”

Asked about the mounting tensions, President Biden said Monday he was “concerned that they are moving as much as they are,” a clear reference to the Pentagon’s assessment that China has sent 20 destroyers and frigates to the waters around Taiwan.

When asked whether it was a “wise move” by Ms. Pelosi to visit the island despite China’s warnings, Mr. Biden simply said, “That was her decision.”

Interviews with various government, intelligence and military officials and outside experts revealed a growing awareness that the Chinese exercises were not just a response to the speaker’s brief visit, but a turning point in China’s strategy. Several officials said they believe President Xi Jinping wants to show a greater willingness to use force to bring about reunification if necessary.

On Tuesday, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said he suspected China was trying to “make its action too routine in an effort to destroy the long-standing status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” and used its missile tests “to to deter other countries”. of interference in his attempt to invade Taiwan.” Several US officials said they were designing responses to show they wouldn’t be deterred by the island’s defenses.

The exercises, which China said on Monday would now include anti-submarine activities, came just weeks after a new assessment by US intelligence concluded that Mr Xi might try to move up the island over the next year and a half. The intelligence suggests Mr Xi fears his military advantage will diminish as the United States arms Taiwan more quickly, including with weapons that proved effective against Russian forces during the invasion of Ukraine.

Now Taiwan has emerged as such a central part of Xi’s agenda — and such a flashpoint with the United States — that it threatens to overwhelm Mr Biden’s efforts to find a range of issues facing the world’s largest and second largest economies can work together.

The White House portrayed a two-and-a-half-hour conversation on July 28 between the two leaders as largely focused on that agenda. But on Friday, as live fire drills around Taiwan neared their peak, Beijing suspended all discussions on climate change, trade and counter-narcotics and arms control.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said China “is not allowed to co-operate with hostages in matters of global importance because of the differences between our two countries.” But other government officials said China clearly saw climate cooperation as leverage in its relations with the United States, Western allies and even its Pacific neighbors.

Admiral Scott H. Swift, a former commander of the US Pacific Fleet, predicted the past week will be seen as pivotal in the relationship. China’s position will become “much tougher,” he said, and Beijing would turn to “a roadmap to draw much more timely, and perhaps preemptive responses” to efforts to support Taiwan.

Several officials have begun to openly compare Mr Xi’s actions toward Taiwan with President Vladimir V. Putin’s attempts to take Ukraine — a link they were hesitant to make even a few weeks ago. At the 80th anniversary of the battle for the Solomon Islands, Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, denounced leaders who “believe that coercion, pressure and violence are tools that can be used with impunity.” She didn’t name them, but went on to say she believed that “the principles and institutions the world set up after World War II” can now be “ignored and undermined, diminished and destroyed.”

There are early indications that China’s display of power has alienated other powers. The Group of 7 and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have issued statements condemning the action or urging China to back down, something that was missing during the last Taiwanese crisis, in 1996, when the United States was largely alone to express itself. to speak – and two carrier groups to the area.

No doubt, the threats against Taiwan have hardened anti-Chinese stance on Capitol Hill, where Beijing’s condemnation is one of the few areas of a bipartisan agreement. Several lawmakers have begun to talk about China and Russia as common adversaries of the United States, even though there is little evidence that they are working together.

Senator Dan Sullivan, an Alaskan Republican, called the threats against Taiwan “another reminder that we have entered a new era of authoritarian aggression led by the dictators Xi Jinping of China and Putin of Russia. They are becoming increasingly isolated and dangerous, driven by historical grievances, paranoid about their democratic neighbors and willing to use military force and other aggressive actions to crush the citizens of countries like we see in the Taiwan Strait and Ukraine.”

At the Pentagon, officials said China’s exercises are much more complex than previous power shows, showing Beijing’s ability to deploy an armada of planes, warships and missile batteries at short notice.

How well China could sustain operations of this type for weeks or months of campaign, such as the war in Ukraine, is unclear and would be a crucial test for Beijing’s military, officials said. Still, specific parts of the multi-day exercises have impressed US analysts. The Chinese navy and air force have drawn the public’s attention, and US analysts at the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have taken particular note of China’s missile prowess.

“China has the most advanced and largest stockpile of missiles in the world,” said Eric Sayers, a former senior adviser to the US Indo-Pacific Command and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “They test these capabilities often, but seeing how they use missile strikes across multiple maritime domains really says how advanced their missile power has become.”

The US response seemed to draw at least in part from the 1996 crisis script. At that time, President Bill Clinton ordered an aircraft carrier to the opening of the Taiwan Strait and sent another steamship from the Persian Gulf to the region.

In the latter case, after lengthy consultations with the White House, the Pentagon ordered Ronald Reagan and his strike group to remain in the region near the Philippines.

US officials said the exercises had given US intelligence analysts an unusual opportunity to understand the strong and potential vulnerabilities of China’s ability to mobilize and deploy its forces. At the same time, analysts said, the exercises will test China’s ability to perform complicated military maneuvers amid commercial air and sea traffic for the first time, as well as ensure the accuracy and safety of missile launches in densely populated areas.

“It is clear from all the air and maritime platforms that the Seventh Fleet has in the area that they are closely monitoring this exercise to ensure it does not become kinetic,” said Mr Sayers.

In Japan, the surprise was that five Chinese missiles landed in what the Japanese consider their exclusive economic zone — launches widely regarded as a message to both Tokyo and Washington. The missiles were not far from US bases in Okinawa.

Still, Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat and research director at The Canon Institute for Global Studies, said China was showing some restraint. “The immediate Chinese response is under control,” said Mr. miyake. “It’s reserved.”

He added that Mr. Xi “really wants to survive. He wants to be re-elected for a third term. So he really doesn’t want to go to war against the US right now.”

But the missile strikes only strengthened Japan’s efforts to spend more on defense and relaxed some constitutional interpretations that kept Japanese forces close to their shores. “I think China has sent the wrong message to the Japanese people,” Mr Miyake said.

“For those who really want to improve Japan’s deterrence or defense capabilities, this is a golden opportunity.”

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