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Tensions in Taiwan raise fears of US-China conflict in Asia

“From an American perspective, the concept of a great power rivalry with China brought this back to the agenda,” said Henry Boyd, Britain-based defense analyst at the International Institute. strategic studies.

“The need to stand up to China is a strong enough motivator that not taking this fight would also be seen as a betrayal of US national interests.”

China claims Taiwan as its own, and control of the island is a key part of Beijing’s political and military thought. Leader Xi Jinping again stressed this weekend that “the reunification of the nation must be achieved and will certainly be achieved” – a goal made more realistic by the massive improvements made to the Chinese armed forces over the past two decades.

In response, the United States increased its support for Taiwan and more broadly turned its attention to the Indo-Pacific region. US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday stressed that US support for Taiwan is “rock solid”, saying that “we have also been very clear on our commitment to deepen our ties with Taiwan” .

Washington’s long-standing policy has been to provide political and military support to Taiwan, while not explicitly promising to defend it against Chinese attack.

The two sides may have been closest to the coup in 1996, when China, upset by what it saw as growing US support for Taiwan, decided to beef up with exercises that included firing missiles in waters some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Taiwan. coast before Taiwan’s first popular presidential election.

The United States responded with its own show of force, sending two groups of aircraft carriers to the region. At the time, China had no aircraft carriers and little means to threaten American ships, and it retreated.

Stung by the episode, China embarked on a massive overhaul of its military, and 25 years later dramatically improved missile defenses that could easily retaliate, and equipped or built its own aircraft carriers.

The recent report of the US Department of Defense to Congress noted that in 2000, it considered that the Chinese armed forces were “an important but above all archaic army”, but that today it is a rival, having already surpassed the US military in some areas, including shipbuilding to the point where it now has the world’s largest navy.

Counting ships isn’t the best way to compare capabilities – the US Navy has 11 aircraft carriers against China’s two, for example – but in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, China would be able to deploy the almost all of its naval forces, and also has land-based anti-ship missiles to add to the fight, said Boyd, co-author of the IISS’s annual military balance assessment on global armed forces.

“The concept of China’s operations regarding Taiwan is that if they can delay the American presence in combat, or restrict the number they are able to put into combat because we are able to keep their assets advanced. at some level of risk, they can beat the Taiwanese before the Americans show up strong enough to do something, ”he said.

Taiwan’s own strategy is the mirror image – to delay China long enough for the United States and its allies to show up in force. It itself has significant military forces and the advantage of fighting on its own territory. A recent guidance document also notes the need for asymmetric measures, which could include things like missile attacks on ammunition in mainland China or fuel dumps.

The Taiwan Defense Ministry’s assessment of China’s capabilities, presented to parliament in August and obtained by the Associated Press, says China already has the capacity to seal Taiwanese ports and airports, but lacks currently providing transport and logistical support for large-scale joint landing operations – although that is improving day by day.

In a new strategic direction policy last week, US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro identified China as the “most important” long-term challenge.

“For the first time in at least a generation, we have a strategic competitor who possesses naval capabilities that rival our own, and who seeks to aggressively use his forces to challenge the principles, partnerships and prosperity of States – United, “the newspaper said.

China, during its National Day weekend earlier this month, sent a record 149 military jets to southwest Taiwan in strike group formations – in international airspace but in the buffer zone of the island, prompting Taiwan to scramble its defenses.

China announced on Monday that it had carried out beach landing and assault exercises in the mainland province directly across from Taiwan.

Ma Xiaoguang, spokesperson for the mainland government’s Taiwan Affairs Office, justified the actions as necessary, saying on Wednesday they were provoked by “Taiwan independence forces” in collusion with “outside forces” .

“With every step, the Chinese are trying to change the status quo and normalize the situation through this slicing of salami,” said Hoo Tiang Boon, China program coordinator at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They know Taiwan can’t do anything about it, and the danger is that the possibility of miscalculations or mishaps exists.

Taiwan and China split in 1949 amid a civil war, with nationalists from Chiang Kai-shek fleeing to the island as Communists under Mao Zedong came to power.

In a 2019 defense white paper, Beijing said it advocated “peaceful reunification of the country” – a phrase repeated by Xi over the weekend – but was also unequivocal in its goals.

“China must and will be reunified,” the newspaper read. “We do not promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the right to take any necessary measures.”

Meanwhile, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has pleaded for more global support, writing in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine that “if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the system. democratic alliance. . “

“Failure to defend Taiwan would not only be catastrophic for the Taiwanese,” she wrote. “It would overturn a security architecture that has enabled peace and extraordinary economic development in the region for seven decades. “

US law requires him to help Taiwan maintain a defensive capability and treat threats to the island as a “serious concern.”

Washington recently recognized that US special forces were on the island for training purposes, and it has stepped up multinational maneuvers in the region as part of a declared commitment to a “free Indo-Pacific and open”. They included an exercise involving 17 ships from six navies – the United States, Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand off the Japanese island of Okinawa earlier this month. .

The so-called Quad group of nations – the United States, Australia, India and Japan – concluded joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal on Thursday, which Japan’s Defense Ministry said showed their determination to defend “fundamental values ​​such as democracy and the rule of law.”

Washington also signed an agreement last month together with Britain to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, which China said would “seriously undermine regional peace and stability.” .

“The Americans are trying to bring the allies together on a united front,” Hoo said. “There is a growing internationalization of the Taiwanese question.

Right now, neither side’s armed forces feel fully prepared for a conflict over Taiwan, but in the end, that may not be their decision, Boyd said.

“It will not be up to the military,” he said. “It will depend on the politicians. “



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