China throws a military tantrum in the Taiwan Strait

Why would one of the ‘freest societies in the world’ want to be ‘liberated’ by an autocratic state?

The visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, lasted just 24 hours.

But it vividly highlighted both China’s heavy-handed reaction, including continuing military drills around the island days after her departure, and how the Taiwan Strait is a geopolitical fault-line between China and the rest of the world.

At its narrowest, the Taiwan Strait is a 130-kilometer-wide channel of water separating the People’s Republic of China from Taiwan.

But the divide is more than geographic. For more than half a century, the Taiwan Strait has been one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. It’s emblematic of the division between the authoritarianism of China and the thriving democracy of Taiwan.

Nonetheless, Taipei is also something of an international pariah. That is because few countries officially maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan, often out of fear of Beijing’s repercussions.

Economic ties

For too long, the so-called “One China” policy, which provides that there is only one China in the world – and that Taiwan is part of that China – has been the foundation of Beijing’s policy.

But while China dictates that all countries adhere to this policy, the US, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and also Canada have merely said they “acknowledge” it.

Much to Beijing’s ire, many countries continue to maintain economic, cultural and even military ties with Taipei. Pelosi’s visit, in China’s eyes, was “playing with fire.”

Beijing’s immediate reaction to Pelosi’s visit was to conduct military drills and send ballistic missiles over Taiwan. But visits by foreign lawmakers to Taipei are nothing new.

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The Czech Republic’s Senate speaker led a delegation there in August 2020, and China responded that they would “pay a heavy price.”

The vice president of the European Parliament visited in July, and underscored the island’s “role as a global, strategic, responsible and reliable international partner.”

Yet Pelosi is the only person to be personally sanctioned by Beijing, sparking speculation that China’s reaction is misogynistic.

Taiwan’s democratically elected president, Tsai Ing-Wen, is a woman and was on Time magazine’s 2020 list of the most influential people in the world for standing up to constant and overt aggressions.

In retaliation for Pelosi’s visit, China also suspended climate talks and military ties with the United States, further escalating tensions and suggesting Beijing is not very serious about climate action.

Aggressive activity

The EU’s foreign minister called on China not to “use a visit as a pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait.”

Japan said China’s military drills will have “a serious impact on the peace and stability of our region,” while the G7 foreign ministers condemned the “threatening actions … particularly live-fire exercises and economic coercion, which risk unnecessary escalation.”

With the ongoing military exercises, Beijing appears to be demonstrating its ability to implement a blockade of Taiwan.

But the Strait is one of the busiest international shipping lanes on the planet. In addition, some of the world’s leading commercial airline routes traverse the airspace surrounding Taiwan.

This is no surprise because the island is a large trading nation.

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It produces more than 50% of the world’s semiconductors, providing the computing power behind modern devices that fuel the global economy. A Chinese blockade or invasion of Taiwan would have extreme ramifications for the rest of the world.

Earlier in June, China said it has “sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait,” a claim that’s been refuted by the US as a violation of international law.

Beijing also claims sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, a claim that the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled has no legal basis.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea clearly provides that the high seas are not subject to claims of sovereignty and all states enjoy the freedoms of navigation and overflight.

Canada and other countries regularly send warships through the Taiwan Strait in an effort to refute China’s attempt to take control of this international body of water.

Domestic issue

In violation of international law, China’s deliberate testing of ballistic missiles and drills impact not just Taiwan’s territorial sea but also encroaches on the exclusive economic zone of Japan.

That means Beijing’s overreaction to what it claims is a purely domestic issue is ironically turning the conflict with Taipei into an international crisis.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs wrote:

The people of Taiwan unfortunately know all too well what it is like to live under the shadow of threats and intimidation.”

PLA Navy ships in the Taiwan Strait. Photo: China Military

Before the island became a democracy, it was an oppressive military dictatorship.

Why would 23.5 million people made up of ethnic Taiwanese, Chinese and 15 Pacific Island Indigenous tribes who live in what Pelosi called “one of the freest societies in the world” want to be, as China has for decades stated, “liberated?”

Despite binding obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the erosion of civil liberties and judicial independence in Hong Kong illustrate that Beijing does not live up to its international commitments.

Furthermore, China has incarcerated more than a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in so-called “re-education camps” and subjected them to what amounts to crimes against humanity.

Global peace

The Chinese ambassador to France recently said openly that the people of Taiwan too will be “re-educated.” It’s hard to imagine why anyone would wish to live under a regime where there is no political or media freedom, and where citizens and foreign nationals are subject to arbitrary detention.

Self-determination is the inalienable right of all peoples to live free from fear and oppression. As China and the US lock horns in the Indo-Pacific, it’s vital that the world stands behind the people of Taiwan.

The international community must call out acts of aggression that undermine regional and global peace and security.

Kuan-Wei Chen is Executive Director of the Centre for Research in Air and Space Law at McGill University in Canada.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.