Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen vowed Wednesday to step up defense following a series of bigger-than-normal threats by her government’s longtime rival China.
“While we work to bolster our defense capabilities, future combat capacity development will also emphasize mobility, countermeasures, and non-traditional, asymmetrical capabilities,” Tsai said in a speech to mark the start of her second term in office. She was reelected in January.
China maintains the world’s third strongest military and Taiwan ranks 26th by the database GlobalFirePower.com. Asymmetric warfare means use of strategy or unconventional arms, such as submarines, against an overall stronger enemy.
The People’s Liberation Army from Beijing is getting ready for amphibious military exercises in the South China Sea possibly to simulate the takeover of three tiny islets that Taiwan controls as part of a marine national park, analysts and media reports in Asia say. The islands sit in a strategic spot between northeast and southeast Asia. Taiwan’s coast guard has a garrison on one.
“If they want to seize the island they could encircle the island and force Taiwan to withdraw, without a fight,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
The Coast Guard Administration said May 12 the garrison is scheduled next month to hold a firing exercise around the Pratas Islands.
China had passed its Liaoning aircraft carrier group around Taiwan in April and let a military transport plane to fly into Taiwanese air space earlier this month. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said last month it had information that China was talking about declaring an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. The sea is disputed by Taiwan and four Southeast Asian countries.
Officials in Beijing have tired of Tsai’s refusal to see Taiwan as part of China, her ever-strengthening ties with the United States – the chief counterweight to Chinese political power globally – and Taiwan’s bid to attend the World Health Assembly this month despite Beijing’s longstanding opposition.
Tsai, first elected in 2016 partly on her tough China stance, has made indigenous defense a priority. The island long dependent on heavy industry has come out already with surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles and 66 aircraft in the past. A domestic shipbuilder broke ground last year on a submarine that’s due as early as 2024.
Over the next four years, Tsai said, Taiwan will work on strengthening defense “against the threats of cyber warfare, cognitive warfare, and ‘unrestricted’ warfare to achieve our strategic goal of multi-domain deterrence.” She said the government plans as well to integrate military and civilian “capabilities” in aviation and space.
Taiwan and China have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost to Mao Zedong’s Communists and rebased on the island. China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has not ruled out use of force, if needed, to unite the two sides.
Tsai rejects Beijing’s proposal for a “one-country, two-systems” form of rule that China uses to govern Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a Chinese territory with a measure of local autonomy. Taiwan government surveys say around 80% of Taiwanese oppose unification with China.
The president suggested dialogue instead on Wednesday. “We will continue these efforts, and we are willing to engage in dialogue with China and make more concrete contributions to regional security,” Tsai said in her speech. “Both sides have a duty to find a way to coexist over the long term and prevent the intensification of antagonism and differences.”
A new crash in relations would precede any attack by China, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“You’re supposed to look for early warning signals, so you’d need to have some deterioration of relations between the two, and it’s certainly not the best relations, but not the worst,” Thayer said.
Chinese officials aren’t planning an attack but want Tsai to make the next diplomatic move, said Alex Chiang, associate professor of international politics at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“I think the relation is already at the bottom and I think it’s up to Tsai Ing-wen to do something about it,” Chiang said. “If she can offer some kind of hope, some kind of friendly gesture toward China, maybe there will be some movement toward a better relationship.”
China’s military exercises are just a “war game” and the country has no “appetite for military actions” while working on economic recovery post-COVID-19, he added.