U.S. Insists It Will Operate Around Taiwan, Despite China’s Pressure

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The Biden administration is vowing to continue sailing warships through the Taiwan Strait and to conduct air operations in the region in response to Chinese military drills that U.S. officials say are evolving into a long-term strategy of heightened military pressure on the island.

Administration officials said they did not want to escalate the tense confrontation, which China maintains was provoked by last week’s visit to the island by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But in interviews and public statements, American and Taiwanese officials made clear they now believe China used Ms. Pelosi’s visit as a pretext to step up its operations to intimidate Taiwan for months or years to come, and perhaps speed the timetable of its plans to establish control over the island’s 23 million people, much as it did in Hong Kong.

Within a few weeks, officials said, the U.S. Navy is planning to run ships through the Taiwan Strait, ignoring China’s recent claim that it controls the entire waterway. Officials said they would not send the Ronald Reagan, the Japan-based aircraft carrier, because it would be too provocative.

Colin H. Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, told reporters this week that China was trying to “coerce” Taiwan and the international community.

“And all I’ll say is we’re not going to take the bait, and it’s not going to work,” he said.

He insisted the United States would conduct business as usual: “What we’ll do instead, is to continue to fly, to sail and operate wherever international law allows us to do so, and that includes in the Taiwan Strait.”

Asked about the rising tensions, President Biden said Monday he was “concerned that they’re moving as much as they are,” an apparent reference to the Pentagon’s assessment that China has dispatched 20 destroyers and frigates to the waters surrounding Taiwan.

When asked whether it was a “wise move” for Ms. Pelosi to visit the island despite China’s warnings, Mr. Biden said simply: “That was her decision.”

Interviews with a variety of administration, intelligence and military officials, and outside experts, revealed a growing sense that China’s exercises were not just a reaction to the speaker’s brief visit, but a turning point in China’s strategy. Several officials said they believe President Xi Jinping is seeking to demonstrate a greater willingness to use force to accomplish reunification, if necessary.

In a white paper the Chinese government published on Wednesday, Beijing said that it would prefer unification by peaceful means but also made clear it was keeping all options on the table. And even as the Chinese military’s Eastern Theater Command indicated that it had completed its drills, which had continued this week and included anti-submarine activity, it said it would organize regular combat patrols directed at the island.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

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Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

What does China mean to Taiwan? China claims Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy of 23 million people, as its territory and has long vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. The island, to which Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces retreated after the Communist Revolution of 1949, has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

What does Xi Jinping want? China’s leader has made it clearer than any of his predecessors that he sees unifying Taiwan with China to be a primary goal of his rule — and a key to what he calls China’s “national rejuvenation.” Mr. Xi is also keen to project an image of strength ahead of his expected confirmation to an unprecedented third term this fall.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

How is the U.S. involved? In an intentionally ambiguous diplomatic arrangement adopted in 1979, the United States maintains a “one China” policy that acknowledges, but does not endorse, Beijing’s claim over Taiwan. U.S. leaders have remained vague about how they would help Taiwan if China attacked, but President Biden has pledged to defend the island.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

Why are tensions rising now? Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to Taiwan has ignited regional tensions. She is the highest-level American official to visit the island since 1997. A chorus of official Chinese bodies portrayed her trip as part of an American effort to sabotage China’s efforts at unification with Taiwan.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

How is China responding? In retaliation for Ms. Pelosi’s visit, China conducted its largest-ever military exercises near Taiwan. After the 72-hour show of force, China said it would hold new drills near the island, a sign that Beijing might be seeking to normalize its military’s presence around Taiwan, allowing Chinese forces to practice imposing a slow squeeze on the island.

On Tuesday, Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said he suspected China was trying “to routinize its action in an attempt to wreck the long-term status quo across the Taiwan Strait,’’ and was using its missile tests “to deter other countries from interfering in its attempt to invade Taiwan.” Several American officials said they were designing responses to show that they would not be deterred from the defense of the island.

The exercises came only weeks after a new U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that Mr. Xi might try to move against the island in the next year and a half. The intelligence suggests Mr. Xi fears his military advantage may diminish as the United States moves to arm Taiwan more quickly, including with weapons that proved effective against Russian forces during the invasion of Ukraine.

Now, Taiwan has emerged as such a central feature of Mr. Xi’s agenda — and such a flashpoint with the United States — that it threatens to overwhelm Mr. Biden’s efforts to find a series of issues in which the world’s largest and second-largest economies can work together.

The White House portrayed a two-and-a-half-hour conversation on July 28 between the two leaders as focused largely on that agenda. But on Friday, when the live-fire exercises around Taiwan were near their peak, Beijing suspended all discussions on climate change, trade and counternarcotics operations and arms control.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said China “should not hold hostage cooperation on matters of global concern because of differences between our two countries.” But other administration officials said China clearly saw climate cooperation as a point of leverage in its dealings with the United States, Western allies and even its Pacific neighbors.

Adm. Scott H. Swift, a former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, predicted that the past week will be viewed as pivotal in the relationship. China’s position will become “much more hardened,” he said, and Beijing would turn to “a playbook to draw much more timely, and perhaps pre-emptive responses” to efforts to support Taiwan.

Several officials have begun openly comparing Mr. Xi’s actions toward Taiwan to President Vladimir V. Putin’s efforts to seize Ukraine — a link that, even a few weeks ago, they hesitated to make. Speaking at the commemoration of the battle for the Solomon Islands 80 years ago, Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, denounced leaders who “believe that coercion, pressure and violence are tools to be used with impunity.” She did not name them but went on to say that they believed “the principles and institutions the world set up after the Second World War” can now be “ignored and undermined, diminished and destroyed.”

There are early indications that China alienated other powers with its show of force. The Group of 7 and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations issued statements either condemning the action or urging China to back down, something that was missing from the last Taiwan crisis, in 1996, when the United States was largely alone in speaking out — and sending two carrier groups to the area.

Without question, the threats against Taiwan have hardened anti-China attitudes on Capitol Hill, where condemnation of Beijing is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement. Several lawmakers have begun talking about China and Russia as common adversaries of the United States, even if there is little evidence that they are working together.

Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, termed the threats to Taiwan as “another reminder that we have entered a new era of authoritarian aggression led by the dictators Xi Jinping of China and Putin of Russia. They are increasingly isolated and dangerous, driven by historical grievances, paranoid about their democratic neighbors and willing to use military force and other aggressive actions to crush the citizens of such countries as we are seeing in the Taiwan Strait and Ukraine.”

At the Pentagon, officials said China’s exercises are much more complex than previous shows of force, demonstrating Beijing’s ability to deploy an armada of aircraft, warships and missile batteries on short notice.

How well China could sustain those kinds of operations for a campaign lasting weeks or months, like the war in Ukraine, is unclear and would be a pivotal test for Beijing’s military, the officials said. Even so, specific parts of the multiday exercises have impressed American analysts. China’s navy and air force have drawn public attention, and American analysts at the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies have taken particular note of China’s missile prowess.

“China has the most advanced and largest inventory of missiles in the world,” said Eric Sayers, a former senior adviser to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “They often test these capabilities, but to see them utilizing missile strikes across multiple maritime domains really speaks to how advanced their rocket force has become.”

The American reaction appeared to draw at least in part from the playbook of the 1996 crisis. At that time, President Bill Clinton ordered one carrier group to the opening of the Taiwan Strait and sent another steaming to the region from the Persian Gulf.

More Coverage of the China-Taiwan Tensions

In the latest case, the Pentagon — after lengthy consultation with the White House — ordered the Ronald Reagan and its strike group to remain in the region, near the Philippines.

American officials said the exercises had given U.S. intelligence analysts an unusual opportunity to glean insights into the strengths and potential vulnerabilities of China’s ability to mobilize and deploy its forces. At the same time, analysts said, the exercises are for the first time testing China’s ability to carry out complicated military maneuvers in the midst of commercial air and maritime traffic, and ensure the accuracy and safety of missile launches near heavily populated areas.

“It’s clear from all the air and maritime platforms Seventh Fleet has in the area that they are closely monitoring this exercise to ensure it doesn’t become kinetic,” Mr. Sayers said.

In Japan, the surprise was that five Chinese missiles landed in what the Japanese consider its exclusive economic zone — launches that were widely considered a message to both Tokyo and Washington. The missiles were not far from American bases in Okinawa.

Still, Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat and research director at The Canon Institute for Global Studies, said China showed some restraint. “The immediate Chinese reaction is controlled,” Mr. Miyake said. “It’s reserved.”

He added that Mr. Xi “really wants to survive. He wants to be elected again for a third term. So he really doesn’t want to go to war against the U.S. at this moment.”

But the missile attacks only bolstered the moves in Japan to spend more on defense and loosen some of the constitutional interpretations that have kept Japanese forces close to their shores. “I think China might have sent the wrong message to the Japanese people,” Mr. Miyake said.

“For those who really wish to enhance Japan’s deterrent capability or defense capability, it’s a golden opportunity.”

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