September 2023

Will China give diplomacy a chance?

As the United States streamlines its military aid to Taiwan,  Richard Gregson weighs up the Chinese and wider regional responses

Repeated violation of Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and military exercises around the island by Chinese aircraft and naval vessels, are reinforcing Taiwan’s resolve to defend its sovereignty, come what may. Taiwanese morale got a boost following US announcements over the last two months, to commit to consolidating weapons supplies to the beleaguered island and to expand the scope of bilateral cooperation between the two countries.

Indeed, the US State Department has approved a deal worth $500 million to supply Taiwan with Infrared Search and Track Systems (IRSTSs) for its F-16 fighter jets, the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced on August 23. The package will integrate various elements of the system including testing; aircraft and munitions support and equipment; spare parts and accessories; personnel training and engineering, technical and logistical support services. Together with military aid worth $350 million which was pledged in July, this is the 11thmilitary aid package for Taiwan since President Joe Biden took office in 2021.

Certainly these advanced sensor systems will greatly improve the capability of Taiwan’s fleet of modified F-16Vs to effectively intercept intruding Chinese aircraft, which frequently violate the island’s ADIZ with impunity.The IRSTs will provide interceptors with an additional means of identifying enemy aircraft that will not jam. Indeed, the system detects and tracks airborne threats by its heats signatures and infrared radiation and unlike traditional active search mode radars, the IRSTs are entirely passive sensors. This means the pilot of the aircraft being tracked won’t be aware that he is already on the enemy’s radar. This makes the Chinese J-20 stealth aircraft – which do not have effective Infrared signature suppression capabilities – quite vulnerable to the new systems.

Taiwan is upgrading it saging F-16A/B Block 20 fleet and has signed a deal worth $8 billion forthe purchase of 66 brand-new F-16V block 70s, equipped with APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and other advanced avionics. However, there have been delays in the supply of the new aircraft even though  the deal had been announced by the administration as far back as 2019.

Infrared Search and Track Systems
Detecting and tracking threats at long ranges

Furthermore, on July 28, Washington announced a military aid package for Taiwan, worth $345 million. The package includes Man-Portable Air Defence Systems; intelligence and surveillance capabilities; firearms and missiles; as well as training and education. What is unusual about this aid package is that the weapons will be drawn from existing US stockpiles – a policy that has so far only been used for Ukraine.

Indeed, section 5505 of the 2023 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) gives the US President the right for ‘drawdown of defense articles from the stocks of the Department of Defense, defense services of the Department of Defense, and military education and training.’

Sending weapons to Taiwan, however, has been constrained by the lengthy review process required by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, as well as the necessary congressional approval. This circuitous process has often been criticised for the delay in providing aid to Taiwan.Indeed, according to a report, while sales of military equipment, worth $19 billion, are in the pipeline, some deals agreed in 2016 have still not been actioned.

The NDAA has also approved $2 billion in loans, annually, for five years, and $100 million for stockpiling equipment in Taiwan. While the 2023 NDAA has no provision for monetary aid to Taiwan, experts point out that stockpiling US equipment on the island can be a significant deterrent against any Chinese misadventure in future.

China has come down heavily on the US accusing it of turning Taiwan into a ‘powder keg’

What is the picture if we compare US military aid to Ukraine with that offered to Taiwan? The US has provided $23 billion of drawdown aid to Ukraine in 43 instalments. The total commitment to Ukraine is worth $41 billion, including $23 billion worth of drawdown weapons. Additionally, Ukraine is being supplied newly-produced weapons that cost $18 billion. This is several times larger than the less than $1 billion of aid promised to Taiwan.

In fact China has come down heavily on the US, accusing it of turning Taiwan into a ‘powder keg’. Beijing said that the US intends to ‘use Taiwan to contain China’. In January, the Chinese justified their combat exercises around Taiwan,calling it a reaction to US arms sales to Taiwan and the transit through the Taiwan Strait by a US Navy destroyer.

On August 19, as many as 42 Chinese aircraft and eight ships conducted military drills in the vicinity of the island, in a manoeuvre aimed at blockading the island. The Chinese state media acknowledged that the operation involved missile boats and fighter jets, simulating an encirclement of the island. Taiwanese aircraft scrambled and naval defence and land-based missile systems were activated, heightening tensions in the region.

Ridiculous as it may seem, the Chinese foreign ministry said the military manoeuvres had been conducted to convey a ‘stern warning’ to the island neighbour in response to Taiwan’s Vice President, William Lai, visiting New York during a transit stopover, en route to Paraguay. Lai, a frontrunner in Taiwan’s forthcoming presidential elections, scheduled for January next year, was on his way to Paraguay to attend President-elect Santiago Pena’s inauguration and had also made a second stopover in San Francisco, on his way back to Taipei.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry has taken strong exception to US military aid to Taiwan

Earlier in April, the Chinese air force and navy held extensive exercises in the region, following President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. China, it may be recalled, had conducted its largest military exercises in the wake of former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August last year.

Meanwhile, the North Korean Foreign Ministry has taken strong exception to US military aid to Taiwan. A statement of the ministry said it will further intensify military tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. ‘This constitutes a flagrant violation of the one-China principle, which the US committed itself before the Chinese government and people, and of the spirit of the three China-US joint communiqués,’a statement circulated by the official Korean Central News Agency said.

Retaliation: China flexes its muscle following Taiwan's Vice President’s visit to New York

Chinese belligerence in South and East China Seas, its expanded ADIZ to overlap Japanese controlled Senkaku Islands, the South Korean and Taiwanese territories and other territorial claims, have been bringing the affected countries in the region closer together in an anti-China alliance of sorts. Almost all of China’s neighbours‒ including former allies such asVietnam  ‒have much to complain about regarding Chinese expansionist ambitions. The only exception, perhaps, is North Korea.

Will China’s rulers mend their ways and give diplomacy a chance?  

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada