What Do China’s Taiwan Intrusions Mean?
Warplanes buzzing the island’s buffer zone send a signal to the Taiwanese leadership—and to those on the mainland.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China sets a new record for intrusions on the edge of Taiwan’s airspace, a prominent security official meets his downfall in Beijing, and a dubious new study on COVID-19 in China offers no real conclusions.
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Chinese Warplanes Buzz Taiwan
This week was a national holiday in China, but not for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Since Friday, China has set new records with intrusions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), with 56 planes entering the zone’s southwest corner on Monday. The flights have involved a core of heavy bombers escorted by 30 or more fighter jets—the same formation as one would expect during a real attack.
Monday’s intrusion was the largest since Taiwan began tracking China’s maneuvers in the ADIZ last year. Taiwan’s ADIZ isn’t its airspace but the buffer zone around it—something that several countries maintain in tense situations but that doesn’t have force in international law. So China has effectively been flying to the edge of Taiwan’s actual airspace, like a provocative schoolyard bully. (Although Taiwan’s ADIZ takes in a small part of the mainland, it doesn’t report flights there as intrusions.)
Such intrusions serve multiple purposes for Beijing, from demonstrating coercive power to straining the Taiwanese pilots who must scramble in response. There are two likely reasons for the scale of the latest intrusions.
First, other countries have recently offered greater support to Taiwan—whether indirectly, as with the submarine deal among the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, or directly, as with Lithuania welcoming a de facto Taiwanese Embassy in Vilnius. Chinese officials obsessively read the tea leaves regarding Taiwan, focusing on what may seem like small gestures of solidarity, such as the athletes who backed their Taiwanese counterparts after their flag was banned at an international diving event last week.
The intrusions are likely an attempt to remind both the Taiwanese leadership and the public that these moves have a cost.
Second, the maneuvers serve as a form of political protection for Chinese officials. Chinese domestic politics has become increasingly ideologically paranoid, and Taiwan remains the ultimate third rail. Officials who fail to perform hysterics over the slightest suggestion that Taiwan may be an independent state put themselves at risk. Every Taiwanese success creates the need for a mainland scapegoat: Consider the unfortunate Chinese diplomat who turned up at a party in Fiji last year where there was a cake on the table bearing a Taiwanese flag, forcing him to start a fight so he wasn’t blamed for it.
The Chinese military is not immune to this pressure, and its intrusions into the ADIZ demonstrate party loyalty and political virtue—hence launching them during Golden Week, which commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The United States is attempting to ease the tensions, but it’s a tough line to walk between deterrence and deconfliction. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held a meeting with high-ranking Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Switzerland this week. Washington also issued sharp warnings to Beijing, which may have been why there was no major intrusion on Tuesday. U.S. President Joe Biden attempted to contribute, declaring after a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping that the two sides had agreed to “abide by the Taiwan agreement.”
Unfortunately, there is no Taiwan agreement. Biden seems to be using the phrase as shorthand for the status quo—which consists of the Three Communiques, shared statements largely intended to reassure Beijing; the Six Assurances, which restate U.S. principles and offer reassurance to Taipei; and the Taiwan Relations Act, which authorizes relations between Taiwan and its congressional allies.
Although China frequently misstates the U.S. position, Washington has never acknowledged Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. In a less politically charged environment, Biden’s imprecise language would matter much less. But as China fixates on such small details when it comes to Taiwan, it may seize on the verbal slip-up and misinterpret it as a sign of a shifting U.S. policy or portray it as U.S. agreement with Chinese positions.
The odds of a full-blown Chinese invasion of Taiwan remain small, though not zero: It would be a huge risk in a generally risk-averse system. But as the Chinese economy stumbles, nationalism will appear even more attractive to keep the public onside. There is a much higher chance of a serious crisis short of war, whether it’s China gathering invasion-scale forces nearby to test the U.S. reaction or the deliberate disruption of everyday life in Taiwan, like cutting internet cables.
What We’re Following
Unloved leader falls in Beijing. Fu Zhenghua, a former Chinese minister of justice and a prominent public security official, is under investigation for “serious violation of discipline and law” by the internal body that polices the Chinese Communist Party, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Such investigations inevitably lead to expulsion from the party and criminal charges. Fu’s former colleague Sun Lijun faced an investigation by the same body in April and was expelled from the party last week.
Fu played a role in many crackdowns on academics, artists, journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists in recent years, and his fall has been met with cheers from those he helped victimize. But it doesn’t mean any change in policy. Liberal sociologist Yu Jianrong, who faced personal persecution by Hu, noted that a “few bad guys being investigated doesn’t change anything.”
Fu played a role in the investigation of Zhou Yongkang, a former security czar sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015. But police states tend to eat their own—not least because security officials pose the biggest threat to leaders with their access to surveillance and paramilitary forces. (In the Soviet Union, for example, three successive secret police chiefs were executed between 1938 and 1956.)
New COVID-19 claims don’t hold water. A new report by an Australian cybersecurity firm alleges that the growing number of contracts for PCR diagnostic tests in Hubei province in summer 2019 shows that the coronavirus was already spreading then, with Chinese government knowledge. This is a highly dubious claim, for several reasons.
First, PCR tests exist for a number of infectious diseases, and, as the study data shows, their use has been growing in China for years. PCR tests are used African swine fever, which remained a major concern in 2019 after annihilating pig herds the year before. It also does not make sense for a government to be so concerned about the virus in 2019 that it ordered mass testing contracts—only to ignore the signs until a major outbreak occurred months later.
Xinjiang police whistleblower. In an interview with CNN, a former Chinese police officer now in exile has spoken about the beatings and torture he witnessed while serving in Xinjiang, which he says the authorities characterize as a war zone. There is a debate among China analysts over whether the violence of Chinese political language reflects actual policy. In the context of Xinjiang, interviews like this make clear that phrases such as Xi’s “crushed bones and shattered bodies” should be taken literally.
Tech and Business
Energy crisis continues. The rolling energy crisis caused by high coal prices and tight government controls has affected Chinese manufacturing, with September figures showing an unexpected decrease in activity. Many people are scrambling to keep the lights on, with leaders in northern China—where winter is fast approaching—closely monitoring coal supply contracts. Shortages in the northeast, China’s rust belt, are particularly acute.
The root of the problem is that China’s economy remains fundamentally dependent on coal. Even if the electricity shortage is solved, high coal prices will still cause problems in the north, where the poor routinely burn coal for winter heating, accounting for 7 percent of the country’s coal use.
Shipping prices plunge. Manufacturing woes have caused a sudden decrease the price of shipping goods from China, with rates down by 30 percent in the last week. But the shift follows large increases over the last year: The price of sending a container from Shanghai to the United States hit more than $20,000 in August, and global prices have gone up by 500 percent.
There are many reasons for this, starting with the fact that the pandemic left many containers stuck on one side of the Pacific Ocean, causing a shortage in China and a consequent price rise. COVID-19 outbreaks in Chinese ports have also led to shutdowns, with waiting times jumping from half a day to over two weeks.
Odds and Ends
New weapon against dancing aunties. China’s so-called square dancers, the mostly older women who conduct mass dancing exercises in public spaces, are very charming if you’re a tourist—and extremely exhausting for nearby residents, as the dances often start early or end late. But a new craze has swept shopping sites such as Taobao: selling remote controls to shut off the public speakers the dancers use.
Since they’re providing a technological, market-driven solution to a problem the government has long tried and failed to regulate, an impending government crackdown on the sellers is likely.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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