The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, spent most of Wednesday moving through the Taiwan Strait from south to north on its way back to Qingdao from exercises in the disputed South China Sea.
At one time, Taiwan’s military scrambled jets to take a look at the vessel and its airplanes, leading to at least the look of a tense military standoff right at the island’s doorstep.
While at no time did anyone really expect an incident which could eventually turn into a full-scale crisis, the passage of the Liaoning still rings several alarm bells.
First of all, the aircraft carrier entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, though China emphasized that none of the jets on the ship ever took off during its passage.
Secondly, while its route was the shortest way from Southeast Asia to its home port, Taiwan should bear in mind that on the way down, the ship passed by the island’s other side, off the east coast in the Pacific.
In other words, China showed it was capable to send its Navy and its first aircraft carrier passing by Taiwan’s “backyard” as well as by its “front door,” confirming the ideas of some strategists that the island should not only be concerned about the People’s Liberation Army eventually attacking from the flat and densely populated western side, but also from the more remote and mountainous eastern coast.
China not only stays true to its creed that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China, but it has also never excluded the military option to break through the “first island chain,” a series of archipelagos in the hands of pro-U.S. governments, from Japan and Okinawa via Japan and the Philippines down to Borneo.
It is possible to downplay China’s military capabilities at the present time and say an attack is not imminent, but one cannot neglect to certify the trend where Beijing pours resources into its military, and more particularly the expansion of a fleet turning a continental power into a maritime power likely to challenge the U.S. Navy and its allies. China’s moves are comparable to Japan’s military expansionism in the 1920s and 1930s, which reached its climax with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
While Chinese President Xi Jinping is boasting reform at home, overseas he has been taking a hard line, most clearly so in disputes about numerous uninhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea, where Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia also lay rival claims. The same hard attitude can also be seen in China’s behavior toward Japan.
It was an unbelievable stroke of luck for Xi that the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is willing to put his personal antipathy toward the United States above his country’s resentment against Chinese expansionist ambitions.
Another element to be considered was the timing of the Liaoning’s journey, coming right during President Tsai Ing-wen’s absence in faraway Central America. The event led her to call a special national security meeting while the Ministry of National Defense reassured the public it was monitoring the passage of the aircraft carrier for any sign that the ship or its jets might cross into Taiwan’s side of the straits.
There was an implicit threat that if Tsai tried to expand the island’s diplomatic reach, it could face more military intimidation.
The African nation of Sao Tome and Principe dropped its ties to Taipei last month, choosing Beijing shortly after. The next domino on the list was believed to be Nicaragua, where leftist President Daniel Ortega, who severed ties to Taiwan in 1985 but left them when he returned to power two decades later. Nevertheless, Tsai’s visit to the country featured a hearty meeting with Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, and an inauguration ceremony where the Taiwanese president was treated as a guest of honor.
However, in a total surprise, the next case of Chinese diplomatic aggression erupted in a country which did not even have official ties to Taiwan, populous African oil producer Nigeria. The government there issued a statement in strong support of China’s “One China Principle” while demanding the removal of the Taiwanese trade office from the capital Abuja to its largest city, Lagos.
According to a Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker, the sudden outburst was motivated by a Nigerian request for a loan of US$20 billion (NT$634 billion) from China.
The Nigerian demands vis-à-vis the Taiwanese office can be considered as a serious escalation of China’s campaign against Taiwan’s participation in the international community, because Beijing is apparently no longer satisfied with stealing away official allies, it is now also causing trouble for the much more modest economic, trade and cultural offices in countries that were not allies in the first place.
The move will only fuel a backlash inside Taiwan, with any government efforts to improve relations likely to come under fire, not in the least from the government’s own supporters. China’s blatant aggressiveness in both the Liaoning and the Nigeria cases amounts to shooting itself in the foot, since its hopes of having a pro-Chinese party eventually return to power in Taiwan’s 2020 or 2024 elections will wither rapidly if it continues on the same course.