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Sparks in the Taiwan Strait Tinderbox

J-11 fighter jets fly past soldiers at an airport in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China April 3, 2019. (Stringer via Reuters)

For the first time in 20 years, two Chinese fighter jets deliberately crossed the Median Line of the Taiwan Strait this week, making a ten-minute incursion that prompted a scramble of Taiwan fighter jets to intercept them. The J-11s that crossed line are only the latest intimidation from the mainland towards Taiwan. Last May, People’s Liberation Army Air Force bombers and jets flew around the island, underscoring Beijing’s ability to encircle Taiwan from the air in the case of hostilities. And the latest incursion comes in the midst of discussions between Washington and Taipei over the potential sale of advanced F-16V fighters, a purchase that Taiwan has asked for dating back over a decade, and just months after Chinese president Xi Jinping repeated his goal of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland.

Xi has increased the pressure on Taiwan since the election of current Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen in May of 2016. Tsai is from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has traditionally been more independence-minded than its opposition, the Kuomintang (KMT), which was founded by Sun Yat-sen and which ruled Taiwan continuously for 55 years after Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland and invaded the island. Tsai incurred Xi’s wrath by denying a consensus exists between Beijing and Taipei on the One China policy–namely, that there is but one China, and that both China and Taiwan are part of that one China (Beijing goes farther, of course, and denies that Taiwan is anything other than a province of Communist-controlled China). This ambiguous formulation has been used for decades by both capitals to maintain their position vis-a-vis the other, but in Beijing’s eyes, Tsai threatens to take Taiwan further down the road towards independence, even though she has reiterated support for the status quo.

The real sparks in the Taiwan Strait tinderbox came from Tsai’s public announcement that she will order a “forceful expulsion” of any Chinese military jets that cross the de facto border of the Median Line. Tsai also ordered the military to complete all tasks on war preparation. There is undoubtedly a range of options Tsai has that would fulfill her promise of forcibly expelling Chinese intruders, but she has also raised the stakes appreciably. Any inability to immediately counter PLA Air Force incursions and prevent Chinese jets from lingering in what Taiwan considers to be its airspace will undermine her credibility. If the Taiwanese Air Force simply shadows Chinese fighters or bombers, waiting for them to leave of their own accord, then Beijing will undoubtedly be emboldened to further poke at Taiwan’s defenses. That could then cause an accident or miscalculation happening at hundreds of miles an hour thousands of feet above the ground. Taiwan’s frustration could boil over into an actual use of force, or Chinese pilots could also miscalculate in such an encounter, as happened in April 2001, when a hotshot Chinese fighter pilot collided with a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over the South China Sea.

The end result of a similar accident over the Taiwan Strait could be an armed clash, giving Beijing the excuse it needs to deal a blow to Taiwan’s military, and try to intimidate the country into some sort of agreement that curtailed its sovereignty. It would also present Washington with a grave choice, of whether to risk an intervention against the world’s second-most powerful military or to have its credibility shredded by failing to support Taiwan after so many decades (for those who really want to get into the policymaking weeds, consider what would happen if Taiwan fired the first shot or caused an accident that claimed Chinese life, and Beijing retaliated. Would a U.S. president get involved short of a clear offensive action against Taiwan by China?). One way for the U.S. to avoid getting drawn in directly, is to fast-track the approval to sell Taiwan the F-16V fighters it wants. That will send a message that Washington won’t shrink from supporting Taiwan, and it will give Taipei greater ability to defend itself, which may give China some pause.

Tsai is on the horns of a dilemma fabricated solely by Beijing. She has to respond to such a blatant act as the premeditated crossing of the Median Line or risk looking weak and emboldening China. Yet she may have promised too much. Simply asserting that Taiwan would continue to relentlessly respond to any incursions of its airspace, but would leave open how it responds in any given case, would make clear that Taipei is not backing down in the face of Beijing’s provocations. She has to hope that China does not decide to throw off a few more sparks of its own into the Taiwan tinderbox.

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