China Backing Down over Taiwan

Taiwanese military simulating a response to a Chinese attack.

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 defence 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *