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China’s increasing aggression signals a looming war over Taiwan

Today, China sent two drones toward Taiwan’s Kinmen County island grouping, but the craft returned to Xiamen — a major Chinese port — after soldiers fired warning flares. 

Yesterday, Taiwan shot down a Chinese drone violating airspace over Lion Islet, part of Kinmen. The incident occurred on the fourth-straight day unidentified drones were spotted near or over those islands. Lion, a rock outcropping, lies just 2.5 miles from Xiamen. 

China’s aggressive drone actions are almost certainly an attempt to provoke Taiwan. 

China’s regime immediately tried to play down the Wednesday incident. Hu Xijin, once editor of the Communist Party’s “Global Times” tabloid and now China’s “most famous propagandist,” maintains the drones buzzing Taiwan islands on Thursday were operated by “mainland civilian drone hobbyists.”

That contention is extremely difficult to believe. Due to the sensitivity of the drone flights, it is far more likely the crafts seen during the five days were launched under the orders of the Chinese ruler, Xi Jinping. 

There are three especially disturbing aspects to yesterday’s incident. First, the Chinese operators of the downed drone did not retreat after Taiwan’s soldiers fired flares as warnings. In other words, it looks like the flight was designed to trigger an incident. That says, in turn, the Chinese regime is prepared to go to war now, or at least authorize provocations that can result in conflict. 

Second, China created Thursday’s incident despite a clear warning from the Biden administration. On Wednesday, National Security Coordinator John Kirby called Tuesday’s drone incursions “a clear attempt by the Chinese to permanently alter the status quo in and around Taiwan and to sort of set a new normal for their activities and behaviors, be that behavior crossing over the medium line with air and maritime assets or in this case, overflight by unmanned aerial systems.”  

“Changing the status quo is unacceptable,” he added.  

Beijing was evidently not impressed by Kirby’s words and does not appear to be deterred by America.  

Third, traditional diplomacy is not working. Yesterday’s shoot-down is the culmination of Chinese overflight incidents. On Feb. 5, China sent a Harbin Y-12 utility plane over Tungyin, one of Taiwan’s offshore Matsu Islands. Taipei, hoping to avoid a crisis, first tried to ignore the clear violation of Taiwan’s airspace and then, after local residents would not keep quiet, minimized the incident. 

Taipei’s strategy failed. Xi Jinping did not respond to Taiwan’s restraint with restraint. His response was, among other things, this week’s drone flights, which became progressively bolder through Thursday. 

Just about everyone is in favor of “measured” and “proportional” responses to China these days, but the overflight incidents show they do not work. China’s regime has become militant, and it is not clear that any policies, other than extreme ones, will have any effect. Yesterday’s shoot-down did not stop the drone flights, but at least China exhibited more caution today.

So far, the Biden administration has not abandoned long-held beliefs about China. As Kirby said on Wednesday, there are “active efforts” to arrange a meeting between the American and Chinese leaders. There is speculation that Biden and Xi will talk on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali in November. 

Americans have unshakable faith in communication with China, and U.S. diplomats for decades have chased — both literally and figuratively — their Chinese counterparts to arrange dialogue. Now, after five phone and video calls between Biden and Xi, relations are breaking down fast. 

America’s general policy of restraint on Taiwan — the policy of “strategic ambiguity” is meant in part to placate Beijing — has kept the peace for decades, but that policy approach worked in a generally benign era. The policy is obviously failing now as Beijing ramps up tensions with neighbors, especially IndiaJapan and the Philippines, in addition to Taiwan.  

So what could work?  

Perhaps only robust responses. President Biden should realize China has become combative and adjust policy fast. He can do that by publicly declaring that the United States will defend Taiwan, offering the island republic a mutual defense treaty, extending diplomatic recognition to Taiwan as a sovereign state and basing American troops on the island as a “tripwire” force.  

In any event, the Pentagon should move to a higher state of worldwide readiness, DEFCON 2. After all, China’s regime, with its various overflights, has shown an apparent willingness to back up its warlike talk with warlike actions. 

Of course, robust responses would outrage Xi and could escalate the situation, but at this moment, traditional non-escalatory approaches have failed. Now, every path forward is exceedingly dangerous, but the most dangerous path of all is to continue policies that have allowed Beijing to think it can engage in provocation without cost.  

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China” and “The Great U.S.-China Tech War.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang. 

Tags China-Taiwan tension Joe Biden John Kirby Politics of the United States Taiwan–United States relations US-China relations US-China tensions Xi Jinping

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