Taipei, Taiwan – Two Chinese jets briefly flew across the Taiwan Strait “median line” – the de facto border between China and Taiwan – on Monday morning in what has been a busy year in cross-Strait military exercises.
While the jets were signalling Beijing’s displeasure with US Health Secretary Alex Azar’s ongoing visit to Taipei, similar missions have entered Taiwanese airspace and waters at least 20 times this year, according to local media.
While Taipei is not required to publicly disclose every military encounter with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu warned in July that Beijing might be preparing to “solve the Taiwan issue” – a euphemism for taking control of the island.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has not ruled out force in taking Taiwan, a democracy of 23 million people that Beijing’s Communist Party claims as its own although it has never ruled the island.
Officials and analysts in Taiwan say the uptick in military activity this year is a sign that Beijing may be seeking a distraction from a slew of domestic problems, including a summer of catastrophic flooding in southern China, as well as international pressure on a range of issues, including the novel coronavirus pandemic and the trade war with the US.
Taiwan, which remains a diplomatic sore spot for Beijing, has long been a convenient scapegoat for the Communist Party in times of trouble, according to Wang Ting-yu, a Democratic Progressive Party legislator and member of Taiwan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee.
“This year, the activity appears of the PLA seems a little bit much more than usual, especially in the Southeast part of the Taiwan Strait. We noticed that compared with China’s domestic situation, the Chinese Communist Party have some problems inside their country: COVID-19, floods, some food shortages and the economy is a little bit worse than usual,” Wang told Al Jazeera.
“We think something happened inside the Chinese Communist leadership, maybe Xi faced some kind of challenge, and they are using outside conflict to divert [internal] leadership [problems].”
The uptick in military pressure was first noted by China-watchers in March and April and continued over the ensuing months, even as Taiwan held its own annual domestic drill in July to prepare for a possible attack or invasion by the PLA.
Enoch Wu, a Taiwanese political activist and former staffer on Taiwan’s National Security Council, told Al Jazeera that he expected the hostilities to escalate.
“Certainly the number of exercises is quite high this year, but I think we should see it as part of a longer-term trend. Every year, China has been steadily increasing and escalating its military activities, so from where I sit, I see that as part of a longer-term pattern that’s probably going to intensify,” Wu said.
“There is a public expectation here that China will continue to ramp up pressure, and there’s a lot more they can do, and will do, before an invasion will happen.”
The last major crisis between Beijing and Taipei was in 1995-1996 when China fired missiles into Taiwanese waters following a visit by Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to the US shortly before his election.
Since then, Wu said China has continued to ramp up the capability of the People’s Liberation Army while also pushing outwards against Taiwan and its neighbours. Notable incidents included declaring the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, island-building and militarisation in the South China Sea, border skirmishes with India, and conflicts with Japan’s coastguard and fishing vessels, he said.
While Xi has pledged to take Taiwan, which he claims is part of China, by “any means necessary”, Wang, the Taiwanese legislator, told Al Jazeera he thought an actual Chinese invasion of Taiwan was unlikely any time soon.
The international costs would simply be too high for Beijing, which is also currently fighting a trade war with the US, and the government could get the “same effect” inside of China by appearing more assertive towards Taiwan, Wang said.
But while Xi may be winning hearts and minds at home, his push against Taiwan comes at a unique demographic inflection point for the democracy – and one that has given President Tsai Ing-Wen the political willpower to hold her ground against a hostile China.
Notable changes have included a move to emphasise the word “Taiwan” on passports – which traditionally read “Republic of China, Taiwan” – and to change the English name of Taiwan’s flagship carrier, China Airlines. Taiwan has also managed to turn its successful handling of COVID-19 thus far into a global public-relations win and raise its international profile, despite lacking an observer seat at the World Health Assembly.
Such manoeuvring might not have been possible without domestic support inside of Taiwan, said Christy Chiang Ya-chi, director of the Research Center of Intelligent Technology Governance at National Taipei University of Technology.
This year a record 67 percent of Taiwanese identified as “Taiwanese” as opposed to “Chinese” according to the latest identity survey by the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, up from 17.6 percent in 1992 when the survey started.
“I think the numbers illustrate the growing pressure for the government to change the names of Taiwan passports and China Airlines … It may be fair to say there’s a more assertive Taiwan in the face of a more hostile China,” Chiang said.
While the numbers are less clear over whether Taiwan should declare formal independence from China, Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at US-based think-tank Project 2049, said the long term trend is no longer in Beijing’s favour.
“Identity politics are shifting towards a uniquely Taiwanese identity and what that means for domestic politics – that will shift away from the median [of status quo]. If we view the two ends of the Taiwan spectrum as unification and independence … right now with the way Taiwan identify politics are moving they are going to shift everyone closer to independence, whatever that entails, and further from China, she said.