WASHINGTON – Tensions between the U.S. and China have flared in recent days as the Biden administration rebuked Beijing for its military aggression against Taiwan, prompting a fierce backlash from Chinese officials.
The verbal sparring serves as a stark illustration of China's mounting aggression against its neighbors and highlights President Joe Biden's quandary as he tries to counter China's military expansion.
Some experts fear that if the brewing "cold war" between Washington and Beijing turns hot, Taiwan will be the spark. China views Taiwan as part of its territory; Taiwan sees itself as an independent, sovereign nation. The U.S. has long tried to navigate a fraught middle ground that aims to support Taiwan without infuriating China. That balancing act is now being stress-tested.
China's military has sent more than 100 warplanes into Taiwan's air defense zone over the past several days, according to Taiwan's defense ministry.
On Sunday, the State Department accused Beijing of engaging in "provocative" and "destabilizing" behavior and reiterated America's support for Taiwan.
"We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coercion against Taiwan," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement Sunday. "The U.S. commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."
In response, a spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, essentially told the Biden administration to butt out.
"Taiwan belongs to China, and the U.S. is in no position to make irresponsible remarks," she said on Monday. "China will take all necessary measures to resolutely crush all attempts at 'Taiwan independence.'"
Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-Wen, cast the latest confrontation in stark terms, saying her country is "on the frontlines of a new clash of ideologies" between democracy and authoritarianism.
"If Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system," she wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday by Foreign Affairs magazine. "It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy."
Weighing threat vs. bluster
Experts are divided over whether the record number of Chinese military flights, along with other recent threats against Taiwan, signal a looming invasion of the territory or military bluster. But most agree the Biden administration needs to tread carefully to avoid stumbling into a war with a country that has spent billions of dollars transforming its military over the past decade.
"There’s a bit of a war scare right now, with some people believing that a Chinese attack on Taiwan could come sooner rather than later," said Eric Heginbotham, a research scientist at MIT's Center for International Studies and expert in Asian security issues.
Craig Singleton, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think thank, noted that China's recent moves began on China's national day celebration and said they have more to do with stirring up nationalist sentiment than with threatening Taiwan or provoking the U.S.
"It would be a mistake to read too much into these latest military maneuvers," he said.
He said Xi Jinping's government is under intense internal stress because of economic problems, most notably the possible default of Evergrande, an overleveraged real estate giant that helped fuel China's housing bubble. Xi will continue to pursue hostile policies toward the U.S. and Taiwan as he tries to cement his grip on power before next fall's Communist Party gathering, Singleton said.
“The potential for miscalculation vis-a-vis Taiwan is only likely to increase in the lead-up to next October's Party Congress," he said.
Bonny Lin, an expert on China with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China’s leaders have incentives to exaggerate the country’s military capabilities for deterrence and coercion, and she notes the country spends more on internal security – surveillance and repression of dissent – than it does on its external defense.
'Obsessed' with China as its military spending skyrockets
Biden has put China at the center of his foreign policy, arguing that Beijing's economic growth and military expansion is a threat to American prosperity, Western democracy and the international order.
That outlook has driven many of Biden's priorities – including a recent defense agreement with Australia designed to counter China's regional aggression.
Lin said that deal was a good first step, but it's impact won't be clear for decades.
“In terms of how much it changes the military balance of power, it remains to be seen,” she said, noting it will take 20 to 30 years for the submarines in the U.S.-Australia agreement to come online. Other elements of the agreement, such as provisions to share artificial intelligence, need to be fleshed out, she said.
Heginbotham and others note that China has dramatically increased its military capabilities in recent years. It now boasts the world's largest Navy in terms of the number of ships, and it has formidable ballistic and cruise missile programs.
Biden's secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall, has said the U.S. military needs to retool its strategy to focus on advanced technologies that will "scare" China. He made the remarks in an interview in August with Defense News.
“I’ve been obsessed, if you will, with China for quite a long time now – and its military modernization, what that implies for the U.S. and for security,” Kendall told the news outlet. "They’re moving faster than I might have anticipated. So, we have a lot of work to do.”
His remarks prompted a response from Beijing: "We'll meet you in the sky," Wang Wei, a deputy commander in China's air force, told reporters last week during an airshow where the Chinese were showing off their latest warplanes.
China’s military expenditures are the second-highest in the world after the United States, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China’s defense spending has increased for 26 consecutive years, the longest series of uninterrupted increases by any country, according to the institute's analysis.
Heginbotham says China has the ability to inflict significant damage on the U.S. in a way its military has not experienced in decades.
"That doesn't mean war is imminent or even in the foreseeable future," he said. And policymakers in Washington need to be careful not to provoke an unwanted conflict by tinkering with U.S. policy on Taiwan, he said.
Lin said that as China has become stronger economically and militarily over the past decade, it also has become more willing to use that strength to coerce neighboring countries. Lin does not believe Xi's government will launch an invasion of Taiwan anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. can turn its attention elsewhere.
“We still need to be there to support our allies and partners,” she said.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: China's threats to Taiwan put Biden, US military, diplomats on alert
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