China Softens Threat on Taiwan No-Fly Zone
Beijing’s sudden pullback shows that at least some of its leaders remain sensitive to pressure from Tokyo and Seoul.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China changes course on imposing a no-fly zone north of Taiwan after collective pushback, French President Emmanuel Macron faces criticism from allies after his visit to Beijing, and severe sandstorms hit Beijing.
China’s No-Fly Zone About-Face
This week, China warned Taiwan that it would impose a no-fly zone near the disputed Senkaku Islands north of Taiwan for three days beginning on Sunday. (The islands, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands, are administered by Japan.) But within hours of the news going public, Beijing changed course and reduced that period to a face-saving 27 minutes. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin denied knowledge of the events on Wednesday.
The about-face highlights both rising tensions over Taiwan and some of the factors that may stop China from invading. China’s sudden decision followed pushback from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan about the air traffic and trade disruptions a prolonged no-fly zone would cause. China did not publicly explain the reason for the no-fly zone, but Reuters reports that South Korean sources were told it’s linked to satellite debris. It seems more likely the move was part of a reaction to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s brief transit visit to the United States.
China also responded to Tsai’s trip with military drills around Taiwan, including mimicking a blockade. As usual, the drills seemed mildly stressful for the Taiwanese public but did not spark any great sense of alarm or fear of imminent invasion, although some Taiwanese politicians were keen to talk up the threat. Both sides recognize to some degree that Chinese drills around Taiwan are fundamentally performative—more about fulfilling a domestic political need than serious training for an attack.
Two factors drive China’s aggressive response to events like Tsai’s transit visit. First, militant opposition to Taiwan has long been necessary for survival within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Even slightly violating China’s official language around Taiwan’s status can cause problems for CCP officials. When those outside China cross a red line on Taiwan, officials and military officers must show a response or face accusations of being soft toward the enemy. This pressure has worsened as tensions with the United States have deepened.
Second, Chinese state media often promises the public that an attack on Taiwan would be easy. It portrays China as powerful enough to invade and conquer Taiwan at any moment; it simply chooses not to do so out of good will and peaceful intentions, or so the narrative goes. Based on my conversations in China, this myth is widely believed. Any Taiwanese action must be met with a display of power to reassure the Chinese public that Beijing is setting the agenda, not Taipei.
However, any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be far from easy—and could fail. I suspect China’s military and political leadership are aware of that. They haven’t yet deluded themselves into believing their own propaganda on the issue, as Russia did before it invaded Ukraine last year. Rather than self-soothing bluster, one of the early warning signs of actual invasion plans might be an attempt to prepare the Chinese public for a long and difficult conflict with Taiwan and the United States, with language focused on struggle and sacrifice rather than power.
The sudden no-fly zone change indicates that some elements within the CCP remain sensitive to potential economic pressure from China’s U.S.-allied neighbors. Furthermore, the decision seems to have come from someone with enough power to avoid internal attacks for looking weak. That is important because Japan and South Korea’s reactions to any future Chinese moves would be critical in a hypothetical conflict. Japan has close ties to Taiwan, which was briefly a Japanese colony.
In both Japan and South Korea, public opinion of China has reached record lows with Chinese President Xi Jinping in power. South Koreans hold a lower opinion of China than of Japan, a country South Koreans are taught to hate from early childhood. Late last month, China arrested a still unnamed Japanese executive from Astellas, a pharmaceutical firm, on likely spurious espionage charges. The move sparked considerable worry and anger in Tokyo. Japan has announced it will double its defense budget by 2028, aimed at countering any potential Chinese moves.
Ultimately, Beijing’s no-fly zone reduction is a relatively minor concession. But any sign of caution from China is welcome when talk of war over Taiwan is all too common.
What We’re Following
Fallout from Macron’s trip. Some allies have blasted French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China last week as a political blunder in which Macron—currently unpopular back home—was feted by his autocratic hosts. In one photo, Chinese state media framed Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as supplicants sitting at a round table before a powerful Xi.
Macron’s ostensible goal in Beijing was to encourage Xi to pressure Russia on its war in Ukraine, but the trip achieved nothing on that front. A month after Xi said he would call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, that hasn’t materialized. Macron followed up his visit with a somewhat controversial interview in Politico in which he tried to put distance between France and the United States, especially on the issue of Taiwan.
It’s true that Europe is somewhat split on China, although European attitudes have hardened in the last two years. A charitable reading of Macron’s position is that he is maintaining French autonomy in a world where the United States is not a reliable ally, given the possibility of an increasingly isolationist Republican Party returning to power.
Macron’s attitude might stem as much from his background in finance as it does from his Frenchness: Many people in the business elite still long for the days when China was seen primarily as a reasonable market opportunity.
Human rights lawyers sentenced. On Monday, two of China’s most prominent rights lawyers, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, received prison sentences of 14 and 12 years, respectively, for “subversion of state power”—a common charge against dissidents in China. Both men have been held without trial since their arrests in 2020 and 2019.
In the 2000s and early 2010s, human rights lawyers were able to operate relatively freely in China, often representing victims of local miscarriages of justice. Some CCP intellectuals were even interested in the idea of “constitutionalism,” which would allow a rule-of-law framework—as long as top leadership was excepted. Any hope of that has disappeared after the concerted assault on civil society under Xi.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• The Real Motivation Behind Iran’s Deal With Saudi Arabia by Saeid Golkar and Kasra Aarabi
• Leaked Ukraine War Plans Complicate Spring Counteroffensive by Alexandra Sharp
• Europe’s Energy Crisis That Isn’t by Adam Tooze
Tech and Business
Spring sandstorms arrive. In the last month, Beijing has seen some of its worst sandstorms in years, reducing visibility in the capital to almost zero. The so-called yellow dust was once a routine seasonal hardship in Beijing, like the sweltering heat of summer and the dark air pollution of winter. But as with the pollution, which has declined considerably in the last decade, the sandstorms had become weaker and less common.
This change seems to be the result of long-term reforestation efforts aimed at combating desertification, such as China’s “Great Green Wall” project, which started in 1978 and has increased forest coverage in the country’s north—despite significant criticism. Beijing didn’t experience any sandstorms between 2011 and 2021. The root cause of the latest storms seems to be climate change in Mongolia, where unseasonable temperatures have damaged soil.
China and Mongolia have repeatedly pledged to work together on anti-desertification projects. (Ecological engineering has a long history in the region, going back to the Song Dynasty’s own forestation projects to frustrate potential invasions.) But in the meantime, sandstorms are spilling over to South Korea, where worsening air quality is a factor in China’s growing unpopularity.
Banking crackdown. With China’s campaign against big technology winding down, CCP officials have turned their attention to the financial sector, especially banking. Xi and other top leaders seem determined to reassert central party control over finance the same way they did in the tech sector. There is some element of ideology involved: Xi is enough of an old-school Leninist to emphasize the so-called real economy and to mistrust international finance. (That shouldn’t be mistaken for moral principles.)
All of this has resurrected an interesting phrase: the “sweet potato economy,” referring to a metaphor about a sweet potato’s leaves expanding to absorb sunshine, even as it remains rooted in the soil for nutrition. Xi suggests that Chinese firms must be rooted in the homeland—and under CCP control—even as they go global. The phrase was recently picked up by Zhejiang-based companies after the provincial governor used it, and it is spreading.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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