China’s Scare Tactics Prompt U.S. Fears of a Clash Over Taiwan

American military officials in the Pacific worry that U.S. and Chinese interests could collide in the island democracy.

A domestic constructed guided missile corvette ship launches flares during a drill at sea near the naval port in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Jan. 27, 2016. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)
A domestic constructed guided missile corvette ship launches flares during a drill at sea near the naval port in Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan on Jan. 27, 2016. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii—U.S. military forces in the Pacific are alarmed by what they see as an increasingly capable China using military intimidation and economic coercion to bully its smaller neighbors.

So far, these tactics fall short of actual armed conflict. But U.S. defense officials here and in Washington, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, say if the United States does not stay on alert in the region, Beijing could use force to advance its interests—and Taiwan in particular is a major potential flash point.

Among the signs of Beijing’s increasing aggression, a Chinese warship came within 45 yards of the bow of a Navy destroyer in the South China Sea late last year, a close encounter the service characterized as “unsafe and unprofessional.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy has increased the frequency of movement through the strategically important Taiwan Strait, including most recently on March 24, after China repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle the island for drills.

And in January, China’s President Xi Jinping warned that any efforts by the contested island democracy to assert its full independence could be met by armed force, and he implicitly threatened the United States if it tries to intervene.

In what appears to be a signal to China, the Trump administration has reportedly given tacit approval to Taiwan’s request for 60 new F-16 fighter jets, prompting fresh protests from Beijing. Previous administrations, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, rejected Taiwan’s request to buy new F-16s, likely so as not to provoke China.

But this time, while the formal process has not yet been completed, officials and experts said it will likely go through given President Donald Trump’s administration’s more hawkish attitude toward China. John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, is a proponent of the deal, said one former defense official.

“There is a consensus that’s almost bipartisan in Washington that it’s time to be a bit more assertive against China,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. “This is the part where fighters are geopolitics with wings.”

The U.S. military’s increasing concern over China’s actions in the Pacific come amid tense negotiations between the Trump administration and Beijing to end a tariff and trade rules standoff that has roiled global markets. National and financial security are inexorably tangled in the region, as China uses not just military but also economic tactics to coerce its vulnerable neighbors.

“China represents our greatest long-term strategic threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to the United States,” Adm. Phil Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, recently warned the Senate.

Between the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, China has built roughly eight islands, populated with advanced surface-to-air missiles and airfields that can support bombers and other aircraft, said one U.S. Air Force official here. At the same time, Beijing has employed dubious maritime tactics in the South China Sea, such as using disguised military vessels, painted white to look like China Coast Guard ships, to intimidate Vietnamese fishing boats.

China also has between 100,000 and 150,000 fishing vessels that “at any point they could operationalize” and use “to blockade, intimidate, or coerce other nations,” the official said.

While an all-out war between the United States and China is unlikely, Taiwan is the one place where the two countries’ conflicting interests could lead to a military confrontation, said one senior U.S. defense official. Beijing has opposed any attempt by the island nation to declare independence since 1949, when the two split after Mao Zedong’s Communists won China’s civil war.

“Separatists are the greatest threat to internal order and the Communist Party in China,” the official said. “Preservation of the Party is the #1 goal of the Chinese government, and one of the few interests that would lead them to risk a military confrontation with the US.”

Xi’s January comments seemed to confirm this worry.

“We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures,” he said during the speech in Beijing, stressing that reunification must be the ultimate goal.

Those options could also be used against “intervention by external forces,” Xi added.

One U.S. military official here in Hawaii said the United States must send a message to China’s communist government that it will stand behind democratic nations, particularly Taiwan.

“Anytime a nation says they are willing to forcibly assault an island, we should be concerned,” the official said.

The United States has sent ships through the Taiwan Strait three times already this year, and six times in total since last July. The destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur and Coast Guard cutter USCGC Bertholf conducted the most recent transit, which Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet, said “demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The United States must also put a “premium” on transforming Taiwan’s military and defense capability so it can maintain a deterrent force, the military official here said. That includes mobile air defense systems, anti-ship cruise missiles, small fast attack boats, countermine capability, precision artillery, and modern aircraft to patrol its airspace.

“No one wants to be pulled into World War III,” the official said.

In an effort to beef up Taiwan’s defenses, the U.S. military sold more than $25 billion of equipment to Taipei from 2007 to 2018.

There has also been talk of selling Lockheed Martin’s newest stealth fighter jet, the F-35, to Taiwan. Last week, Taiwan’s chief of the general staff, Adm. Lee Hsi-ming, visited Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, home to scores of U.S. and international F-35s. But a second senior defense official said an F-35 sale to Taipei likely would not be approved as it is “just a little leap too far with the advanced technology.”

If the F-16 sale actually happens—and the two senior U.S. defense officials caution it is far from a done deal—it would be in addition to the country’s roughly 140 older F-16 aircraft, which are currently being upgraded to the latest standard. Any foreign military sale is a lengthy, complex process that involves approval by the Defense Department, State Department, and Congress.

Aside from Taiwan, the United States is also looking to increase its arms sales to other countries in the region, which buy a lot of military equipment from Russia and China, said another U.S. Air Force official here. However, it is difficult for some of these poorer nations to get over the “sticker shock” of American equipment, the official said.

The push to increase arms sales to Pacific nations is in part an attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Through this effort, China is developing infrastructure and investing financially in countries across the world, particularly in its Pacific backyard. In a move that upset Washington and Brussels on Saturday, Italy became the first G-7 country to join the project.

The problem, U.S. officials say, is that the Chinese investment comes with strings attached, including unsustainable debt, decreased transparency, and a potential loss of control of natural resources.

For example, in December 2017, Sri Lanka gave Beijing a 99-year lease for the Hambantota seaport to avoid defaulting on its debt payments to China.

It is through the combination of economic and military pressure that Beijing will gain influence if Washington does not push back, officials say.

“They are able to use their economic buildup to create a foothold and … then sometimes back that up with military presence,” said the first Air Force official.

“They know where the international response line is to their actions—if they stay below that line they are able to make slow but incremental steps to gain access and gain influence.”

Correction, March 25, 2019: A previous version of this article mischaracterized Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s participation in an upcoming conference.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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