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Taiwan fears calmer Chinese threat as US warns of invasion

TAIPEI, Taiwan – More than two dozen Chinese military planes, including bombers, ripped through the skies over Taiwan on a Monday last month.

The record-breaking foray into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone was the latest move to heighten fears over what critics say is Beijing’s increasingly brazen behavior in the South China Sea.

But as officials in Washington sound the alarm bells about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, officials and islanders say it fails to understand the real dynamics in the region.

Many in Taiwan believe that instead of starting a war, Beijing would rather “subdue the enemy without fighting,” in the words of former Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu.

And just because Beijing is demonstrating military strength, many Taiwanese say, does not mean that it intends to follow through.

Alexander Huang, former vice chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council at the cabinet level of Taiwan, said there was a “perception gap” between the United States and Taiwan in the assessment of the Chinese threat.

“The perception gap comes from assessing ‘intention’, not ‘ability’,” he said.

It is undeniable that China has increased the pressure on Taiwan, which separated from the mainland after a civil war and governed itself for more than 70 years. Beijing, which considers it an inseparable part of its sovereign territory, threatens to annex it, by force if necessary.

In addition to conducting almost daily sorties over Taiwan, Beijing has conducted naval and air force training exercises around the island, navigating a group of aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait and sent spy ships to gather intelligence around Taiwanese waters, according to a report presented to lawmakers in March.

Pressure and pineapple wars

While the United States talks about the medium-term military threat, the Democratic Island sees these measures as part of a larger and more immediate problem: the Beijing “gray zone” war that is supposed to exhaust the world. morale not only of the Taiwanese army, but also the inhabitants of the island.

This includes making its economic influence felt.

In February, for example, China suspended imports of Taiwanese pineapples, saying pests had been found.

The Taiwanese government viewed the import ban as an effort to put pressure on the island. The Chinese market accounted for over 90 percent of Taiwan’s pineapple exports last year.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen issued a rallying cry for the public to buy the fruit, backed by a social media campaign and support from the United States and Canada, in a successful effort to help farmers and turn a potential crisis into a public relations victory.

Taiwan is best known internationally for its thriving tech companies, but the subtropical island also has a thriving fruit industry.Sam Yeh / AFP via Getty Images file

And despite the pressure and increasing postures, many Taiwanese say they have lived with threats from China for so long that they have become largely used to them.

Hearing an American assessment that China could invade Taiwan within the next six years, Pan Chun-ling from Taipei said, “Oh, wow, is this for real?”

“I feel like [a Chinese invasion] is always impossible, but just because we always have a feeling that the United States will find a way to protect us, ”said Pan, 34.

Pan and other Taiwanese, however, expect China to step up military, economic and diplomatic pressure to exhaust their resistance.

In a survey last year, 48% of Taiwanese described the relationship with China as hostile, up from 32% in 2017. The survey was conducted in October by the University’s Election Study Center. National Chengchi under the auspices of a Duke University program.

And not everyone is downplaying the threat from Beijing.

Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in an interview with Sky News last week that China had “waged disinformation campaigns, hybrid warfare, and recently it has stepped up its gray zone activities against Taiwan.” . (Sky News is owned by Comcast, the parent company of NBC News.)

“And all of these seem to be preparing for their latest military assault on Taiwan,” he said.

But ruling Progressive Democratic Party lawmaker Wang Ting-yu, co-chair of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, said that if Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to create a legacy, a war with Taiwan is just that. one of its options. .

A conflict with Japan over disputed small islands in the East China Sea could also be on the table, he said.

China has the “ability to start a war, but it lacks the confidence to win a war,” Wang said.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide election last year on a promise to defend the island’s democracy and stand up to China.Sam Yeh / AFP via Getty Images file

For now, the only reason China would go into war with Taiwan and take “this huge, huge risk,” he said, is if the government feels it has it. green light “from the international community, in particular the United States.

Washington certainly seems keen to show that it is paying attention.

Adm. From the Navy John Aquilino, then commander of the US Pacific Fleet, who now heads the Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that annexing Taiwan was the “No.1 priority” of Beijing because of the strategic location of the island. and the view that “the rejuvenation of the Chinese Communist Party is at stake.”

The party will celebrate its 100th anniversary in July and hold its 20th convention at the end of 2022, when Xi is expected to run for an unprecedented third term. But the occasion, which risks being marked with great pomp and highlighting his ambitions for his legacy, could make the threat less acute.

“A total invasion can bring enormous uncertainties and complicate these political agendas,” said Huang, the former official.

China’s Foreign Ministry said U.S. officials have exaggerated the military threat.

“Some people in the United States are actually looking for excuses to justify the increase in US military spending, the expansion of their military might and meddling in regional affairs,” spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in March, a day after the outgoing leader of the Indo. -Pacific Command, Navy Commander Philip Davidson, said China could attack and attempt to take control of Taiwan “within the next six years.”

Chinese state media have also suggested that Beijing’s actions are motivated by fears about the potential for Taiwanese independence.

Meanwhile, Yang Yufan, a pineapple grower in the southern city of Tainan, said the recent pineapple ban was a reminder that Taiwan must reduce its economic dependence on China.

Yang said he expected Beijing’s economic pressure on the island to continue, but he also said he did not believe China would follow through on its military threats.

“This is not the first time that they have tried to intimidate us. They want to harass us. They already do it, many times, since we were children, and now we are adults,” he said. declared.

“So I think there is no need to be afraid.”

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