China Tests Biden’s Will on Strategic Flash Point of Taiwan

China’s decision to fly more than a dozen military aircraft, including strategic bombers, into the Taiwan Strait this weekend sends an early warning to President Joe Biden on one of the most volatile issues between Beijing and Washington.

The sortie by eight Xian H-6K bombers and five other planes Saturday was the third-largest such incursion by People Liberation Army aircraft in the past year, according to Taiwanese Defense Ministry data. Moreover, H-6K bombers are believed to be capable of carrying land-attack cruise missiles that give Chinese forces the ability to strike overseas bases from a safe distance.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement affirming Washington’s “rock-solid” commitment to Taipei and urging Beijing “to cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure.” China should “instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

The incursion sent “a clear signal to the Biden administration that China stands ready to defend its sovereignty over Taiwan and that it is a red line that the U.S. should not dare to cross,” said Yongwook Ryu, assistant professor of East Asian international relations at at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “We will see quite a bit of jostling between China and the U.S. over Taiwan in the early phase of the Biden administration, as the two giants seek to figure out where they can cooperate and test each other’s resolve.”

The 70-year-old dispute over Taiwan has re-emerged since the island elected Tsai Ing-wen, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party president, as its president in 2016. China’s Xi Jinping, who has vowed to work toward unifying the two sides, has cut off communication with Taipei and launched a pressure campaign over Tsai’s refusal to accept that both sides belong to “One China.”

Former U.S. President Donald Trump -- propelled by his own battles with China -- dramatically expanded ties with Taipei, approving the first fighter jet sale in 30 years and the most senior visit by a U.S. cabinet official since Washington switched ties from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. China has pushed back by carrying out frequent military exercises near the island and, in August, firing “carrier killer” ballistic missiles into the South China Sea.

Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Monday that the U.S. planned to review Trump’s policies while consulting with allies and lawmakers in Washington to build consensus on a China strategy. “Beijing is now challenging our security, prosperity and values in significant ways that require a new U.S. approach,” Psaki said.

Psaki’s remarks came in response to Xi’s speech at a virtual World Economic Forum in which he urged world powers to shun an “outdated Cold-War mentality” and defended China’s right to follow its own path. Earlier, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing that the U.S. should “refrain from sending wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces, to avoid harm to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The State Department statement placed the onus on China to re-engage with Taiwan, while indicating a desire to preserve the longstanding ambiguity about Taiwan’s status. The U.S. pledged to stand by existing agreements with China and spoke of the interests of the “people on Taiwan,” rather than the people “of Taiwan.”

“The U.S. wants to prevent China from miscalculating, so it is likely to continue to make clear U.S. interests in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and its resolve to oppose China’s intimidation of Taiwan,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised both the State and Defense departments.

China Tests Biden’s Will on Strategic Flash Point of Taiwan

Chinese state media paid little attention to the State Department remarks, an article in the Global Times newspaper cited its reference to upholding existing agreements as evidence the U.S. was returning to a more “mainstream” Taiwan policy. The Communist Party newspaper described the PLA drills as part of existing training plans and not intended as a signal to the U.S.

Meanwhile, a U.S. aircraft carrier group entered the disputed South China Sea to “conduct routine operations,” the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said Saturday. It was unclear whether the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s trip was intended a specific signal, since such voyages are usually planned long in advance.

China has repeatedly come up in calls between top Biden aides and their allies in recent days. Newly confirmed U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin agreed in a call Sunday with Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi to oppose any attempts to change the status quo in the East or South China seas, according to a Japanese Defense Ministry statement.

Alexander Huang, a professor of international strategic relations at Tamkang University, speculated that Xi was trying to test Biden’s limits.

“Xi is looking to see how the new Biden administration will respond to Chinese behavior,” Huang said. “Whether they believe that the Biden administration will take a strong stance on Taiwan or a soft and indecisive one, they will take lessons from that as they begin a wide range of dialogues on issues from trade to climate change.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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