In the coronavirus fog, tussling over Taiwan goes under the radar

Lawrence Chung

With the world focused on the battle against the coronavirus pandemic and the US and China hurling accusations over the disease’s spread, combat manoeuvres in and around Taiwan have flown under the radar.

Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province that must be returned to the mainland fold and has made clear it will do that by force if necessary.

With the coronavirus killing thousands and crippling healthcare systems around the world, authorities around the globe are occupied, including in the United States, the main arms supplier to Taiwan.

But the US seemingly sent a couple of messages recently that it was still on alert for an inkling in Beijing to use the pandemic as the opportunity in a crisis to try to take back control of Taiwan, according to observers. Other analysts say Beijing is equally concerned that Taiwan not exploit the pandemic to serve its drive for independence.

The US sent its first signal last week when it ran an unusual missile test drill in the nearby Philippine Sea. It then sent the USS McCampbell guided-missile destroyer steaming through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, according to a tweet from the US Pacific Fleet.

Earlier, China’s People’s Liberation Army buzzed Taiwan with jet fighters which prompted Taipei to scramble its own in response.

Su Tzu-yun, from the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a Taiwanese government think tank, said Washington was clearly sending a message.

“The US has never conducted missile drills in the South China Sea, and the drill that it conducted in the Philippine Sea near the South China Sea is meant to tell China that the US is capable of dealing with any situation despite the coronavirus outbreak,” Su said.

“It also serves to warn China against any misjudgment of the situation.”

Beijing has suspended official exchanges with the island since President Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, was elected in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle, an understanding that Beijing considers essential for any exchanges.

Since then, Beijing has staged a series of war games close to the island and poached seven of Taipei’s diplomatic allies to heap pressure on Tsai, who was re-elected in January.

“We do observe that over these months, the PLA has ratcheted up pressure on Taiwan. Certainly the virus is a consideration, but it’s also clear that the political leadership [in Beijing] doesn’t desire to give domestic and external audience the impression that it’s letting down on its guard,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

“If we observe the rhetoric from Beijing it’s clear that there’s concern that the Tsai administration might exploit this virus outbreak as a window of opportunity to push the DPP’s independence agenda. Hence I do see these recent PLA moves against Taiwan as a deterrence against the Tsai administration, and against the Americans from intervening.”

For Beijing, creating a crisis over Taiwan and fanning nationalist sentiment on the mainland would also deflect public anger away from Beijing over its initial handling of the disease outbreak and suppression of information and whistle-blowers, according to Wang Kung-yi, a political-science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

“Recent Chinese military actions, including flying warplanes into the Taiwanese side of the median line of the Taiwan Strait, as well as long-haul training in the western Pacific, show that Beijing might want to use these actions to divert public resentment over its handling of the pandemic, while at the same time telling the US and the world that the outbreak does not affect the military might of China,” Wang said.

The mainland’s exercises built throughout February, with three groups of warplanes briefly crossing the midpoint of the strait into Taiwanese airspace, in what analysts said was a move to test responses.

“[Beijing], of course, wants to use the exercises to intimidate the island while at the same time divert public resentment on the mainland,” said Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang, with Tamkang University.

Taiwan staged large-scale military drills itself this week, including an exercise to repel an invading force.

The island’s defence ministry said the drills were designed to “test the combat readiness of our forces and their responses to an all-out invasion by the enemy”.

Koh said that Beijing, Taiwan and Washington were all sending military messages that combat readiness remained unaffected by the virus.

“It would not be feasible for the PLA to carry out any major aggressive moves against Taiwan without strategic surprise. So we see here a strategic stalemate on both sides, with posturing and counter-posturing,” he said.

Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.

More from South China Morning Post:

This article In the coronavirus fog, tussling over Taiwan goes under the radar first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2020.