Tension in Taiwan as the Formosa Strait continues to simmer

Characterised by provocative addresses and actions, a wave of renewed tension and concern has surrounded the question of Taiwan’s future in recent months- for the Island nation itself, China, and an international community increasingly focused on the region.

Separated by a wedge of Pacific Ocean just a hundred miles in width from coast to coast, it might be falsely assumed that two nations within such close geographic and cultural proximity of one another have a stable relationship.

The recent array of military presences in the Formosa strait illustrates an opposing reality. Since the beginning of Taiwan’s politically alternative path to that of a mainland turned communist through China’s 1949 civil war, geopolitical tension has hung thick in the region’s subtropical air.

Most recently, in a four-day period starting on October the 1st, China sent 150 aircrafts to missions in Taiwan’s air-defence identification zone (ADIZ). Regarded by China as a show of strength against a growing western military interference in the country’s surrounding seas, for Taiwan and its international supporters, intimidation was perhaps a more apt description for the mainland superpower’s actions.

A marriage between heavy-footed military tip-toeing on the edge of Taiwan’s internationally recognised airspace and Chinese president Xi Jinping’s subsequent reiterations of a historical state desire for ‘reunification’ have led many to even consider the potential for an imminent invasion.

As early as last April, the head of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific command Admiral John Aquilino warned that an invasion of Taiwan was ‘much closer to us than most think’. Now, Taiwan’s defence minister Chiu Kuo-Cheng has stated that China would be prepared to launch an invasion within three years if motivated.

This growing sense of threat carried through Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s speech during last week’s national celebrations as she pledged not to bow to mainland pressure and to bolster defences.

Yet beyond the expansionist bogeyman narrative of old, consumed in the west with a glass of warm milk before bedtime, is inevitably an alternative world view. Last week, an American destroyer the USS Dewey and a Canadian Frigate the HMCS Winnipeg were only the most recent military ships of monthly excursions that pass close by the Chinese mainland through the Formosa strait.

From the perspective of Taiwan’s US ally, the excursions are a marker of what the Biden administration has called their ‘rock-solid’ commitment to Taipei and what a US military spokesperson called a commitment to a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’. To the Chinese state these actions are the true provocations that jeopardise regional peace and stability.

Clearly as the splashing persists the paddling pool spats are growing more menacing, only time will tell how much so.

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Hamish Davis

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January 2022
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