Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Taiwan Watchful as Chinese Ships, Planes Edge Near Territorial Space

Since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office in May, the government in Taipei has documented four incursions into what it considers its territorial waters. Two of the most recent military movements have occurred since the Taiwanese leader’s telephone conversation with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, raising concerns that more Chinese actions will be directed at the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own.

Since May 20, Chinese air force planes and naval vessels have approached identification zones marked by Taiwan, which is 160 kilometers (99 miles) away at its nearest point, defense ministry spokesman Lo Shao-he told VOA.

The spokesman said China is maneuvering those units, part of the world’s third biggest military, to warn Taiwan. Beijing has claimed Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and insists on eventual unification of the two sides, despite Taiwanese opinion polls indicating a preference for autonomy.

“These regular exercises are foremost for the purpose of increasing the related threat,” Lo said. “The most important thing is to emphasize that their actions, whether done by the navy or the air force, can show off capability.”

Lo said Taipei expects China to continue encroaching on its territorial air and waters. It has ratcheted up its alert but will avoid any recourse that provokes China, the defense ministry spokesman said.

Beijing’s military drills received particular attention in Taiwan late this month when the Qingdao-based Liaoning aircraft carrier and an attendant fleet sailed into the Pacific Ocean east of Taiwan, then passed close to the Pratas Islands, what China calls the Dongsha islands, in the South China Sea. Taiwan claims the islands, which are 850 kilometers (530 miles) southwest of Taipei.

The Pratas Islands, in the South China Sea

The Pratas Islands, in the South China Sea

The defense ministry in Taipei sent two F-16 jets to track the carrier, which it found as close as 20 nautical miles (37 kilometers) from Taiwan’s air identification zone. It eventually reached a port in southern China, the ministry said.

In early December China conducted an air force drill just outside Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in the Luzon Strait, the defense ministry said then.

China is widely viewed as the victor in any prolonged war as its personnel and equipment outnumber Taiwan’s.

Beijing officials have asked Tsai to continue a dialogue established with China by her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, based on the “One China” policy that binds both sides to one country. China hopes the talks ultimately lead to unification.

Tsai rejects “One China” and neither side has come up with a mutually agreeable alternative, freezing any dialogue and eroding relations built up under Ma since 2008. China’s anger grew when Tsai made a 12-minute phone call to Trump Dec. 2, touching on the topics of Taiwan’s security and its pursuit of stronger international diplomacy independent of Beijing.

On Monday, China set up diplomatic ties with Sao Tome and Principe days after the small African island nation cut ties with Taiwan, raising suspicion of a buy-off by Beijing aimed at retaliating for the Trump call. China and the Vatican, Taiwan’s only European ally, are now in talks that may spark another switch in relations.

Over the past two years, China has conducted routine naval drills near Taiwan with destroyers and frigates, but without its sole aircraft carrier. Its ships have also passed through a corner of Taiwan’s southern identification zone, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. He expects more aircraft carrier movement.

“In my reading, they will continue this practice and even more drills in the future to familiarize their carrier operations,” Huang said. “Of course it sends a political message as well, but I don’t think it was planned after Trump’s victory, or it was planned suddenly.”

China would need cyber-attacks, missile launches and strikes against Taiwan’s seaports and airports to approach a takeover, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general with the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan. A naval blockade is less likely because it would raise “concern from the international community,” he said.

The Chinese aircraft carrier could send planes over Taiwan to make some of those strikes.

“This is an enhanced Chinese capability. They can actually attack Taiwan from all directions,” Yang said, suggesting the military could strike either the island’s east or west coasts. “They can conduct an invasion across the Strait, so it’s simultaneous, all around Taiwan.”

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