China has created a blockade around Taiwan from six different sides, paralyzing the movement of aircraft and sea vessels. This is part of an intense military exercise that is expected to rattle the island nation for days and possibly weeks.
The People’s Liberation Army of China fired at least 11 Dongfeng ballistic missiles into the waters near Taiwan’s eastern, southern, and northern coasts in a series of volleys on Thursday. China’s state-controlled media said the tests involved “long-range rocket artillery” and “conventional missiles.” It even said that the “expected results had been achieved” but did not elaborate.
This is in retaliation for the visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island nation. Pelosi assured Taiwan that the US would not abandon Taiwan in case of an attack from China and would stand by it.
China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province, which must be reunified by force if necessary. Beijing sees the Pelosi visit as an attempt to encourage Taiwan to declare its independence and reject Chinese claims that the island belongs to China.
Will the Pelosi visit result in a sharp reduction in the influence that China, the world’s second-biggest economy and one of the major military powers, commands?
The turmoil in the Taiwan straits has thrown up some more questions. One of them concerns the immediate impact of the Pelosi visit. Are other western powers ready to join the US in countering China over the Taiwan issue and extend support to Taiwan?
There are signs they would. The Guardian reported that the Foreign Affairs Committee in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons is planning a visit to Taiwan probably in November or early December.
German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said, “We do not accept when international law is broken and a larger neighbour attacks its smaller neighbour in violation of international law—and that of course also applies to China.”
In a tweet, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said, “Now Pelosi has opened the door to Taiwan much wider, I am sure other defenders of freedom and democracy will be walking through very soon,” tweeted on Wednesday.
These are signs that a western mandate against China is emerging, almost along the lines of the western rejection of Russia after it invaded Ukraine. In this case, China is still threatening Taiwan and is far from actually invading it.
Besides, China is the biggest trader and the foremost contributor to the global supply chain. Isolating China would hit thousands of western companies who depend on Chinese factories for their products and product components and cause widespread unemployment.
There is little possibility of western powers going so far as to impose economic sanctions on China, which is a major nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
But economic logic is often suspended in the heat of war, particularly when some western politicians feel that diminishing the China challenge would do good to western economies in the long run.
China is not likely to give up in the face of western challenges. What it can do in retaliation was indicated in an opinion piece in the state-run Global Times, which quoted a university professor as saying, “Britain is confronting the plight of separatism as well. Would it be acceptable to Britain if Chinese officials expressed their support for Scottish independence? Such sentiments apply to the Taiwan question.”
Japan is also angry as five of the Chinese missiles appear to have landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, although they were meant to fall in unencumbered sea waters. “To have five Chinese missiles fall within Japan’s EEZ like this is a first. We have protested strongly through diplomatic channels,” Japanese defence minister Nobuo Kishi said on Thursday.
The EEZ stretches 200 nautical miles from the outer limits of Japan’s territorial seas. North Korean missiles have fallen within a different part of Japan’s EEZ in the past, including several in a flurry of launches earlier this year.
This brings home the dangers of missile accidents that can result in massive loss of life as well as a war-like situation involving China and its neighbours, although the Chinese military has said it is using “precision-guided missiles”.
Other neighbours in South East Asia are considering closer ties with the US and slipping out of China’s influence. One of them, Indonesia, is already engaged in a military exercise with the US.
Joe Biden, the US President, is believed to have disapproved of the Pelosi visit. This is a rare situation where the House speaker has tried to change US policy on foreign soil on her own completely. Now the question is whether the Biden administration would follow through by keeping the assurances she gave to Taiwan on behalf of Washington.
Biden cannot ignore the massive policy shift that the visit has brought about. But implementing her promises to Taiwan would mean activating the US fleets on seas sailing in the Asia Pacific and further provoking China.
A cornered China is a lot more dangerous because the Chinese cannot tolerate the loss of face. Keeping quiet in the face of western aggression would mean losing influence for Chinese president Xi Jinping who is due to be approved by the party’s top brass for a third term in office.
Despite economic problems within China, Xi would take chances with military action if western aggression continues. Western and Chinese leaders must find a middle path and calm sentiments before the situation goes out of hand.
What will happen next will depend on a handful of leaders in China and the West who have no more than a few days to calm the waters.
Journalist, author and China expert