The fourth Taiwan Strait crisis
Plus, US takes out al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Hello! Hope you are doing well. It’s been a dramatic week with escalation of tensions across the Taiwan Strait following United States’ House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan despite China’s warnings. Beijing is responding and this episode is quickly turning into the ‘fourth Taiwan Strait crisis’.
But we’re also looking at the US having taken out al-Qaeda’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan and the first shipment of grains leaving Ukraine under the United Nations-brokered agreement meant to help developing nations amid the global price rise. Let’s get started.
This day that year
2019: India’s federal government abrogated provisions of Article 370 of the country’s Constitution that had until then granted special status to the northernmost province of Jammu and Kashmir. The province was also bifurcated into two federally-controlled territories: Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
2011: Thai businesswoman Yingluck Shinawatra was elected Thailand’s prime minister, becoming the first woman to hold the office. She was removed by the country’s Constitutional Court in 2014, weeks before a coup d’état that brought the current PM Prayut Chan-o-cha to power.
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Fourth Taiwan Strait crisis
Last week, we had discussed the possibility of US’ House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi leading a congressional delegation to Taiwan and why China was expressing strong displeasure about it. Even at the beginning of this week, it wasn’t clear if Pelosi would stop by in Taiwan during her Indo-Pacific tour as the itinerary published by her office made no mention of a stopover in Taipei. Some speculated that Pelosi had dropped the plan amid Beijing’s stern warnings and US President Joe Biden citing the US military as saying that it wouldn’t be a good idea. But, the visit happened — leading to what is being called the ‘fourth Taiwan Strait crisis’ (with the first three happening in 1954, 1958 and 1995-1996).
On August 2, a US Air Force-operated Boeing C-40C with Pelosi onboard landed in Taipei after flying circuitously around the Philippines to avoid the contested South China Sea. More than 700,000 people were tracking the flight — carrying the callsign ‘SPAR19’ — live at the point when it landed in Taipei, and nearly 3 million viewers had tracked some part of the flight on FlightRadar24, according to the platform. This made it the most tracked flight of all time, the flight tracking service said.
During her overnight stay in Taiwan, the Pelosi-led delegation held an interparliamentary meeting with Tsai Chi-chang, the Vice President of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwanese Parliament), and leaders of other parties. This was followed by bilateral meetings with Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and President Tsai Ing-wen. “Sadly, Taiwan has been prevented from participating in global meetings, most recently the World Health Organization, because of objections by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While they may prevent Taiwan from sending its leaders to global forums, they cannot prevent world leaders or anyone from traveling to Taiwan to pay respect to its flourishing Democracy, to highlight its many successes and to reaffirm our commitment to continued collaboration,” Pelosi said.
While she became the highest US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years, her visit was nothing more than a statement of solidarity with the island nation. Pelosi is a long-time critic of the mainland’s governing CCP — especially over its human rights abuses. But the visit was also important from a domestic perspective. Pelosi’s Democratic Party is trailing in opinion polls for the US midterm elections scheduled for November and there’s a chance that she may not be able to continue as the House leader for too long. After all, her trip to Taiwan has found support even from rival Republicans.
Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, of course, was met with a Chinese reaction: state-media reported that the mainland’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force had scrambled Su-35 fighter jets into the Taiwanese air defence identification zone (not the airspace). Such incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) are common and have increased in recent years.
Interestingly, Taiwan and China have overlapping ADIZs and a part of the Taipei-controlled ADIZ stretches over the mainland. But the Taiwanese military only challenges Chinese flights when they cross the unofficial median line of the Taiwan Strait.
On August 5, China responded to this latest round of what it calls “provocative actions” by imposing sanctions on Pelosi and her immediate family, and by suspending cooperation with the US in a number of areas such as senior-level military commanders and climate talks, prevention of cross-border crime and drug trafficking and repatriation of illegal migrants. It had already suspended import of more than 2,000 food items, including some fruits and fish, from Taiwan and export of natural sand to the island. The mainland is the self-governing island’s largest trading partner accounting for about 33 percent of its global trade.
But what has left Taiwanese officials and analysts concerned is the four-day live fire drills of China’s navy, air force and “rocket force”, among other units, that started on August 4 (after Pelosi left Taiwan).
These major military exercises are being conducted in six zones surrounding Taiwan. This is the first time China’s drills have encircled Taiwan’s main island. These areas are also closer to Taiwan than previous exercises and even encroach the island nation’s territorial waters. Chinese state-owned news agency Xinhua reported that the drills focus on “training sessions including joint blockade, sea target assault, strike on ground targets, and airspace control operation” with the troops’ joint combat capabilities getting tested. This is China’s way of demonstrating its capabilities and signalling that it can blockade Taiwan by air and sea whenever it wants, Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, told CNN.
AFP cited Chinese state broadcaster CCTV as quoting Meng Xiangqing, a professor at China’s military-affiliated National Defence University, as claiming that Chinese missiles had for the first time “crossed”, or flown over, Taiwan. This was later confirmed by Japan’s Defence Ministry. Meng claimed that the projectiles had passed through an airspace where American surface-to-air Patriot missile systems are deployed.
On the first day of the exercises, Chinese forces launched live ammunition, including almost a dozen ballistic missiles that landed in waters off Taiwan’s northern, eastern and southern coasts. Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi claimed that five ballistic missiles fired by China had — for the first time — landed in the Japanese exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Japan and China have overlapping claims over the EEZ and some disputed islands in the East China Sea such as the Senkaku Islands which are situated very close to Taiwan. In recent years, some Japanese officials have expressed the need to defend Taiwan if the latter is attacked by China, to protect its own security interests. Japan has called for an immediate end to the drills.
Taiwanese President Tsai has said that her government was calm and “will not act in haste”. “We are rational and will not act to provoke. But we will absolutely not back down,” Tsai added.
Tsai warned that in the coming days, China could conduct “intensive information warfare operations” that include cyberattacks on Taiwan’s public and private sectors, and try to create “psychological unrest” among Taiwanese population through disinformation campaigns. There have already been reports of some cyberattacks including one against the Taiwanese defence ministry’s website.
Pelosi’s Taipei visit was risky. China’s reaction is risky. Even before Pelosi’s tour, China had said that it wouldn’t sit idle if such a visit was undertaken. Chinese President Xi Jinping had even warned his American counterpart Biden not to play with fire. When Pelosi landed in Taiwan, the Chinese leadership was compelled to respond as it was getting mocked on social media by Chinese nationalists back home for not taking military action to stop Pelosi.
With just a few months before the communist party congress where President Xi will seek an unprecedented third consecutive term in office, he had to send a strong message. He had to play to the gallery. But he also doesn’t want to raise tensions to a level from where he loses control of the situation. Grey zone activities such as the said military drills encircling Taiwan and cyberattacks are meant to strike that delicate balance, analysts suggest.
This episode reaffirms that peace is fragile.
This neat video by The Economist explains the history of the China-Taiwan tensions:
US takes out Zawahiri
The US killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the terror group al-Qaeda leader, this week in a “precision” strike in the heart of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul. The announcement was made by US President Joe Biden.
The 71-year-old, who had replaced bin Laden in 2011 as the leader of the militant organisation, was an Egyptian surgeon with a $25 million bounty on his head.
Zawahiri’s killing is being considered the biggest setback to the terror group since the organisation’s founder and the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attack, Osama bin Laden, was killed in an operation in Pakistan’s Abbottabad in 2011.
American news media reports quote unnamed senior officials as saying that Zawahiri was killed by a ‘hellfire’ missile fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) when he was standing on the balcony of his house.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that by sheltering Zawahiri, the Taliban had violated the Doha Agreement and its repeated assurances that it “would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries”.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Aaron David Miller notes the key takeaways from the US drone strike taking out Zawahiri
First Ukrainian grain ship leaves Ukraine
The first grain shipment from Ukraine since Russia’s invasion sailed from the Black Sea port of Odessa this week, under a landmark agreement brokered by Turkey and the UN. The ship carrying 26,000 tonnes of maize is headed to Lebanon after travelling along a safe corridor established as part of the deal and passing inspection in Istanbul, Turkey. The blocking of Ukrainian grain exports due to the war has led to a significant rise in global food prices, with imports having become very expensive especially for developing nations. More ships are expected to set sail from Ukrainian harbours in the coming days.
“The drills are a reminder that China has many different ways short of war to pressure Taiwan and undermine US support for the island. In coming years, countering such “grey-zone” tactics will likely represent the toughest challenge the US faces in its effort to maintain Taiwan’s security.” Minxin Pei writes in Bloomberg that Pelosi’s Taiwan visit is just the beginning of US' headaches. Read the opinion piece here.
“Taiwan is more important to U.S. interests than Ukraine, and more likely to spark a direct military response.” Tiejun Zhang explains in The Diplomat how China isn’t Russia and Taiwan isn’t Ukraine. Read the piece here.
The Economist has explained why Italy’s next government may be more nationalist than Europe likes.
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