China Is Testing the United States
On Saturday 30 March, Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force dispatched four long-range bombers, electronic jamming and intelligence planes, and two or possibly more fighter aircraft over the international waters of the Miyako Strait, the approximately 175-mile gap between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako. It cannot be a coincidence that two days earlier the Chinese navy, according to Japan’s Defense Ministry, sent two guided-missile frigates and a logistics ship from the East China Sea into the Central Pacific. The Strait is a critical passage between the East China Sea and the Pacific. If in conflict, China were to deploy warships into the central Pacific they would likely seek to pass through the Miyako Strait. Japan’s Self-Defense Force responded by scrambling fighters to intercept the Chinese aircraft.
On the following day, Sunday 31 March, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets crossed the Median Line that divides the Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and mainland China. Taiwan scrambled fighters to intercept this unusual violation of a long-existing understanding that neither side would cross the Median Line. The last time China deliberately violated this understanding was 20 years ago.
Neither with Japan nor Taiwan are the past few days’ events a new development. China has been increasing its provocations of both states with increasing frequency over the past year. Japan has scrambled fighters to intercept Chinese air force planes earlier in March and February this year in each month since June 2018 in the East China Sea and often over the Miyako Strait.
Similarly, China has increased its provocations directed at Taiwan over the last 12 months including naval circumnavigations of Taiwan, one of which included the aircraft carrier, Liaoning’s passage through the Taiwan Strait.
There is insufficient evidence to conclude that China is preparing to initiate hostilities against either Taiwan or Japan. But China’s rulers have not ruled out force to, as they put it, “reunify” Taiwan with the PRC. And practice drills that simulate military movements in an actual conflict are standard armed force tactics. They provide an aggressor with important information about a potential opponent’s intelligence skills, command and control, response times, and tactical dexterity.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, the legislation that requires the U.S. to provide defense “articles and services” to assist Taiwan in defending itself. The act stated that any attempt to dictate Taiwan’s future by other than peaceful means “would be a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the United States.” Forty years have not changed this fact. They have underlined it as China continues its rapid and well-funded program of military modernization and its growing regional aggression. Taiwan lies at the center of the island chain that follows the curve of Asia’s eastern littoral. China’s seizure of Taiwan would give the PRC uncontested access to the central Pacific including Hawaii and allow it to threaten far more dangerously such other island chain allies as the Philippines and Japan.
Japan is the only ally for whose defense the U.S. is primarily responsible. Its defeat or submission to Chinese will would end the U.S.’s more than a century claim to be a Pacific power as trade flows, technology, and responsibility for security shifted to China.
Chinese success in Finlandizing or defeating Japan and Taiwan would shatter any other foreign government that looked to Washington for security.
President Trump should act resolutely and swiftly to convince China’s rulers that the U.S. supports its Asian allies and partners against escalating Chinese provocations in East Asia.
Specifically, the Trump administration should immediately finalize and sign the deal to sell 60 F-16V fighters to Taiwan. The U.S. has promised but has not delivered on selling advanced fighters to Taiwan for 27 years. Taiwan needs them, as the events of 31 March and the previous year demonstrate. They will not reverse the enormous gap between Taiwan’s defenses and China’s aggressive armaments and provocations. But they will demonstrate the kind of U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense that is critical to deterring China.
To show support for both Japan and Taiwan, the U.S. should divert the USS Wasp Strike Group and dispatch the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group from its homeport in Japan to transit the Miyako Strait and then continue their transit down through the Taiwan Strait.
Tangible proofs speak much louder than any U.S. government statements. Actions, and not only the ones argued for here, are needed to deter conflict in the South and East China Seas. In the end, China’s aggressive behavior of the past few days is a test to see what American policy-makers will do. President Trump will advance the cause of peace by answering with resolve.
Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and director of Hudson's Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.