Chinese and US aircraft carrier battle groups are squaring off in the Philippine Sea as Beijing’s diplomatic tantrum over a visit by Taiwan’s President enters its third day.
Amid mock air and sea battles aimed at demonstrating the “isolation” of Taiwan, China’s second aircraft carrier – the PLAN Shandong – is manoeuvring east of the island democracy, just a few hundred kilometres from a nuclear-powered opponent, the US Nimitz.
Meanwhile, about 20 warships from both China and Taiwan are engaged in a standoff in the narrow Taiwan Strait. The unofficial border between the two old Chinese Civil War opponents is at the heart of the crisis – the “Median Line”, which defines the channel’s midway point.
Beijing last year up-ended decades of status quo by declaring this demarcation line irrelevant.
“You are seriously harming regional peace, stability and security. Please immediately turn around and leave. If you continue to proceed, we will take expulsion measures,” a Taiwanese Coast Guard officer is shown warning a Chinese warship in a video released by Taipei.
âIt is now the morning of April 9th, I am currently positioned about 5 nautical miles east of #Taiwan in the waters of the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwanese warship Yiyang is within my visual range. The naval vessel Xuzhou of #PLA's Eastern Theater Command's navy is currentlyâ¦ pic.twitter.com/BrB0ilRT0p— Inconvenient Truths by Jennifer Zeng æ¾éçè¨ (@jenniferzeng97) April 9, 2023
“I always warn about the chance for miscalculation that leads to escalation to armed conflict. This is yet another example of how that might happen,” comments RAND Corporation analyst Derek Grossman.
Beijing is maintaining a belligerent tone over the latest round of escalations.
Last August, after a visit to Taipei by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China launched similar large-scale war games around Taiwan. That month alone, 446 PLA aircraft probed Taiwan’s Air defence zone. Volleys of missiles were also fired into surrounding waters – including those administered by Japan.
No announcement of similar missile launches has yet been made.
“These operations serve as a stern warning against the collusion between separatist forces seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and external forces and against their provocative activities,” state-controlled media quotes Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) spokesman Shi Yin as saying.
Clash of the Titans
Beijing says its weekend military posturing included simulated precision strikes against “key targets on the island and the surrounding sea areas”.
“Taiwan is not their only target,” an unnamed Taiwanese official told Reuters. “Foreign military targets” were simulated in waters of Taiwan’s southwest coast, the source said, in a “very provocative move”.
This included simulated attacks on an aircraft carrier battlegroup and submarines attempting to traverse the international waters of the Bashi Channel, separating Taiwan from the Philippines.
The aircraft carrier PLAN Shandong and its escorting warships took up station southwest of Taiwan on Thursday, the day of the meeting between Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
The Beijing-controlled Global Times quoted Communist Party military analyst Zhao as confirming the Shandong carrier battle group is now operating in West Pacific Waters off the southeast of Taiwan and “playing an important role in surrounding the island from its east side”.
Latest update on aircraft carriers in the waters east of Taiwan, based on newly released information by Japan's Ministry of Defense. pic.twitter.com/JnVCD96WxE— Duan Dang (@duandang) April 10, 2023
Another news report on state-controlled television said, “The task force will simultaneously organise patrols and advances around Taiwan island, shaping an all-round encirclement and deterrence posture”.
The PLAN Shandong has become the flagship of Beijing’s gunboat diplomacy since achieving operational status in 2020. It was sent through the Taiwan Straits in March last year, shortly before a scheduled call between US President Joe Biden and China’s Chairman Xi Jinping.
Open-source intelligence analysts place the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its battlegroup as currently patrolling about 700km east of Taiwan.
On the back foot
The full extent of Beijing’s retaliation is yet to be seen. In August, its military escalation lasted almost a month.
But a diplomatic back down by US House of Representatives Speaker McCarthy may see the current diplomatic storm blow over somewhat quicker.
Republican McCarthy initially declared his intention to visit Taiwan in the same manner his Democrat opponent, Pelosi, had. In January, it was reported the Pentagon had begun planning for just such a visit.
But international relations analyst Brian Hioe argues in The Diplomat that McCarthy may have been forced to back down and instead meet Tsai during her stopover in the US on the way to visit other allies.
“This shift came after Taiwan shared intelligence with McCarthy about China’s potential response if he were to visit Taiwan,” he writes.
Washington does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei. These were surrendered in the 1970s in a bid to keep Communist China from aligning with the former Soviet Union as the Cold War escalated.
But the resulting policy of “diplomatic ambiguity” towards Beijing’s demands that the world consider Taiwan to be Chinese Communist Party property under its “One China” policy is coming home to roost.
And Beijing is proclaiming its anger at even the limited diplomatic contact between McCarthy and Tsai.
Beijing declared before the meeting that it would “fight back” against such a display of defiance. And an email sent from China’s US embassy to members of US Congress warned, “China will not sit idly by in the face of a blatant provocation and will most likely take necessary and resolute actions in response to the unwanted situation.”
President Tsai has since denounced the ongoing drills and vowed to work with “the US and other like-minded countries” to confront “continued authoritarian expansionism”.
A US State Department spokesperson says Washington has “consistently urged restraint and no change to the status quo”.
The heat is on
Chinese state media says the first round of retaliation for the Taiwan-US diplomatic meeting, dubbed “Joint Sword”, ends today. It is expected to place emphasis on live weapons tests.
PLA Eastern Theatre Command notices say the live-fire drills will be off the coast of China’s Fujian Province, some 80km south of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands and 185km from Taipei.
This is tiny in comparison to the live-fire demonstrations conducted last August.
Meanwhile, its display of overwhelming military power continues.
This morning, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence released a statement that it had observed 70 Chinese aircraft and 11 warships engaged in the exercises.
70 PLA aircraft and 11 PLAN vessels around Taiwan were detected by 6 a.m.(UTC+8) today. R.O.C. Armed Forces have monitored the situation and tasked CAP aircraft, Navy vessels, and land-based missile systems to respond these activities. pic.twitter.com/c2GGUMGrpW— åé²é¨ Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. ð¹ð¼ (@MoNDefense) April 10, 2023(Video) 'Think Twice About Attacking Us': Taiwan Civilians Prep for Invasion from China's Communist Regime
“ROC. Armed Forces have monitored the situation and tasked our assets to respond to these provocative activities,” the statement reads.
It added a strike group of 35 aircraft, including 8 Su30 strike fighters and a Kj-500 airborne radar and control aircraft, crossed the median line and entered Taiwan’s air defence zone.
On the Chinese mainland, several units of mobile missile carriers had moved into firing positions late yesterday.
“Regarding the movements of the Chinese communists’ Rocket Force, the nation’s military also has a close grasp through the joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system, and air defence forces remain on high alert,” Taiwan’s defence ministry said.
“We have no way of knowing how far these activities will go, how large they may become, or how far Beijing will push the envelope,” analyst Ben Lewis argues in a Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analysis of China’s ongoing aggressive probes of Taiwan’s airspace.
Terrifying reality of China war laid bare
China enters a frightening new phase
“Further, the more Beijing turns up the dial with its military pressure, the higher the chance for an accident or miscalculation. It is therefore vital that the international community push back against this behaviour to prevent it from being considered routine.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
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