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China Uses Pandemic to Boost Military Pressure on Taiwan

A U.S. congressional report warns of aggressive actions by the People’s Liberation Army against Taipei.

This photo shows members of the Chinese Navy, a division of the People's Liberatiuon Army (PLA), shouting while marching during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on October 24, 2007.
Members of the People's Liberation Army Navy shout while marching during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 24, 2007. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

China has intensified a campaign of military and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan as the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has intensified around the world, according to a congressional report provided to Foreign Policy, as Republicans are pushing the Trump administration to support a closer alliance with the island nation. 

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a two-decade-old board made up of members appointed by both Democrats and Republicans, is warning that Chinese military forces are engaging in repeated aggressive actions, buzzing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, and tracing the borders of the mountainous island with fighter aircraft.

The uptick in aggression near embattled Taiwan is likely to further raise tensions between China and the United States that have already been on a high over the spread of the novel coronavirus. In January, the U.S. Department of Defense asked Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which makes components for the U.S. military’s F-35 fighter jet, to begin producing parts in the United States, fearing Chinese interference. The Pentagon’s top official for East Asia, Heino Klinck, also paid an unofficial visit to the island in November 2019 to examine options to shore up its defenses.  

While China’s military response appeared to be muted at first, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top Defense Department officials have recently raised alarms about Chinese military threats in the South China Sea, including against a Philippine Navy ship and the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.

In late April, the U.S. Navy conducted two freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which Esper told reporters aimed “to send a clear message to Beijing that [the United States] will continue to protect freedom of navigation and commerce” in the contested waterway. 

China has also exerted strenuous diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, the report said, by threatening allies with cutting off all economic ties with Beijing. Only 14 nations have formal relations with Taiwan, a decision that cuts off countries from having ties with China, though Taipei maintains unofficial links with dozens more United Nations member states.

Meanwhile, the report said that China’s diplomatic pressure has been reinforced by the World Health Organization (WHO), to which the Trump administration controversially suspended funding last month. Republicans in Congress have also put together a so-called China Task Force led by the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul.

Under pressure from China, WHO has squashed efforts to allow Taiwanese officials to share best practices from its COVID-19 mitigation campaign with other countries, though Taiwan had ramped up testing and began screening travelers before the end of February, ahead of other countries. 

“Taiwan’s exclusion also contributed to critical delays in WHO member states’ receipt of timely and accurate guidance in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said. “Had the WHO allowed Taiwan’s health experts to share information and best practices in early January, governments around the world could have had more complete information on which to base their public health policies.”

The report also indicates that Taiwan is making potential breakthroughs in researching vaccines and other treatments for the coronavirus, including studies that could speed up the production of antibodies and a 15-minute rapid diagnostic test. But diplomatic salvos to WHO, including requests for information about atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, were ignored.

Taiwan, an island of 23 million people, had just seven coronavirus-related deaths as of Monday and 440 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Pentagon officials, including the top U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, have said it remains unknown whether the coronavirus emerged from a wet market in China’s Hubei province or elsewhere. Pointedly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “a significant amount of evidence” pointed to the virus coming from a laboratory in the city of Wuhan, a claim that has been disputed by scientists.

The Trump administration is backing an effort to grant Taiwan observer status at WHO, citing its efforts in quickly containing the pandemic, a move that has gained backing from Canada and New Zealand. On Monday night, the Senate passed a bill to grant Taiwan nonmember standing in the organization by unanimous consent. 

Though Taipei had participatory standing at the world body from 2009 to 2016, Chinese officials say the decision to bring it back would violate the “One China” policy that stipulates that Taiwan is part of China, used as a prerequisite for diplomatic relations with Beijing. 

Yet the initiative has picked up steam as China has come under intense criticism from U.S. politicians for covering up the extent of the virus early on, and for touting conspiracy theories in March that the U.S. Army was responsible for bringing the virus to Wuhan during the Military World Games in October, a claim that has not been backed up with evidence.

But as the rate of the new infections there has reached near zero by official tallies, China has appeared to mount a heated counteroffensive, forcing European Union to soften reporting chastising Beijing for spreading disinformation about the pandemic, using a viral YouTube video to call out apparent contradictions in the U.S. response, and upping attacks from Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman who has repeatedly told thousands of Twitter followers that the virus did not originate in China.

The criticism has led to a strong push from Republicans in Congress to strengthen ties with Taiwan, going beyond WHO and into bolstering defense ties.

“Now is the time for a declaratory statement of policy committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan,” Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, a member of the new China Task Force on Capitol Hill, wrote in the conservative National Review on Monday. “While this approach is not without risk, as we have learned painfully from decades of failed policy toward the CCP, the greatest risk of all comes from complacency.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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