Administration officials say they are hoping China’s military exercises last only a few days, but they are discussing their options if the movements expand into something more.
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WASHINGTON — For years the deliberate “strategic ambiguity” in Washington’s China policy has left unclear how the United States would respond to a full-scale, amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
But an equally hard question — maybe harder, in the minds of many senior White House and defense officials — is how to respond to a slow squeeze of the island, in which Chinese forces cut off much of the access to it, physically or digitally.
That question may soon be tested for the first time in a quarter of a century. China’s declaration during Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit that it would begin live-fire military exercises in six locations encircling the island could set up the largest crisis in the Taiwan Strait since 1996, when President Bill Clinton ordered American aircraft carriers to the area.
But those exercises were significantly farther from Taiwan’s shores than the series the Chinese government has warned mariners and aircraft that it plans. And it took place in a far more benign strategic environment, back when China’s entry into the global economy was supposed to modify its behavior, and when Mr. Clinton would tell Chinese students that the spread of the internet would foster freedom and dissent. It was also when China’s military packed a fraction of the punch it now boasts, including anti-ship missiles developed to deter American warships from getting close.
Administration officials say that based on their assessments a full cutoff of access to Taiwan is unlikely — in large part because it would hurt China’s own economy at a time of severe economic slowdown. On Friday, the Group of 7 industrialized nations, the core of the Western alliance, warned China not to retaliate for Ms. Pelosi’s visit, clearly an effort to suggest that China would be widely condemned for overreacting, much as Russia was for its invasion of Ukraine.
But American officials say they worry that the events of the next few days could trigger an unintended confrontation between China’s forces and Taiwan’s, especially if the Chinese military launches a missile over the island, or if an incursion into disputed airspace leads to a midair conflict. Something similar happened 20 years ago, when a Chinese military aircraft collided with an American intelligence-gathering plane.
As the military exercises began early Wednesday, White House and Pentagon officials were monitoring the situation closely, trying to figure out if China was sending forces into each of the areas near Taiwan’s coast it has declared closed. But their assessment was that China’s strategy is to intimidate and coerce, without triggering a direct conflict.
Outside experts were more concerned that the exercise could escalate.
“This is one of the scenarios that is difficult to deal with,’’ said Bonny Lin, who directed the Taiwan desk at the Pentagon and held other defense positions before moving to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, where she heads the China Power Project. “If a military exercise transitions to a blockade, when does it become clear that the exercise is now a blockade? Who should be the first to respond? Taiwan’s forces? The United States? It’s not clear.”
An exercise-turned-blockade is one of many scenarios that get “war-gamed” in Washington regularly, as American officials try to map out options before a crisis strikes. But nothing really replicates a real-life confrontation.
Mr. Biden, aides say, would have to try to walk the delicate line between avoiding folding to the Chinese and avoiding escalation.
It is even more complicated by the continuing debate over how to help Taiwan become a “porcupine,’’ or a country too well defended for China to invade. For all the talk of F-16 sales to Taiwan — its fleet is supposed to top 200 of the fighter aircraft by 2026 — there is growing worry that Taiwan is buying the wrong kind of gear to defend itself, and that it needs to learn some lessons from Ukraine.
It is hardly a new debate. Two years ago, a senior defense official, David F. Helvey, warned that as China’s ability to choke off the island rises, Taiwan itself can, “through smart investment, send a clear signal to Beijing that Taiwan’s society and its armed forces are committed to the defense of Taiwan.” But he warned that the sums that Taiwan’s government was committing to acquiring new defensive technology were insufficient for a resilient defense.
The result has been a steady drumbeat from Washington urging Taiwan’s leadership to invest less in expensive F-16 fighters and more on what Mr. Helvey called “large numbers of small things,’’ the formula that later helped Ukraine resist Russian forces.
That list includes mobile cruise missiles for coastal defense, naval mines, small fast-attack craft and mobile artillery.
President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has expressed support for the so-called “asymmetric” strategy and has moved in recent years to increase the defense budget and buy many of the small, mobile weapons that U.S. officials have recommended, like Harpoon missiles. But she has encountered resistance at times from some Taiwanese military officials, who argue that some conventional weapons systems are still necessary to prepare for different scenarios. They have also argued that without an explicit security guarantee from the United States, it would be too risky for Taiwan to give up its lethal weapons.
That view has changed somewhat in recent months as the war in Ukraine has jolted Taiwan’s military and the public, prompting a greater embrace of the “porcupine” strategy. But that war has also depleted stocks and strained production capacity among American and allied defense contractors, meaning Taiwan may need to wait for several years. And that delay gives China an opening.
Moreover, Taiwan’s defense budget hovers at around $17 billion a year, though it has committed to spend an additional $8 billion on armaments over the next several years. By comparison, Congress recently apportioned $52 billion in aid for Ukraine — which doesn’t have Taiwan’s revenue streams to pay for its own defense — and China spends on the order of $230 billion annually.
Some also say that what Taiwan needs from the United States is not just weapon sales, but other forms of support, ranging from military technology to operational exchanges and training.
While Taiwan’s military is sometimes allowed to participate in defense symposiums, it is rarely invited to join large multinational military exercises because most countries do not officially recognize it as a nation. And while Washington has gradually ramped up training of Taiwanese forces on the island and in the United States in recent years, the island’s mandatory military service and its reservist program are still seen as insufficiently rigorous.
“The U.S. could help us learn how to train more efficiently and mobilize reserve forces more quickly,” said Ou Si-fu, a research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a think tank affiliated with Taiwan’s defense ministry. “They could also help more in terms of technology transfer, to support our indigenous weapons development programs.”
Of course, defending against invasion bears little resemblance to defending against a blockade. Executing a blockade is even harder.
“Threatening a blockade and actually initiating a blockade are two very different things,” said Eric Sayers, a former senior adviser to the U.S. Pacific Command who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. Sayers said China has long had the ability to effectively encircle Taiwan if it chose to do so, so the capability itself isn’t a surprise.
“Despite all the threats Beijing has made in recent weeks, it would still be very difficult for the P.L.A. Navy and costly to China’s economy to maintain a blockade for an extended period of time,” Mr. Sayers added, referring to the People’s Liberation Army. “What hurts Taipei’s economy has a similar effect on Beijing.”
Mr. Sayers continued, “What is most significant about China’s response is that it is giving us a preview of how the P.L.A. might deploy an indirect blockade against Taiwan in the future to ratchet up the pressure near an election or other political crisis.”
“Instead of announcing a military blockade they may instead announce an extended military exercise around Taiwan that closes or disrupts shipping routes for 30, 60, 90 days. This makes it less a military operation and more a form of legal warfare to justify an indirect blockade for a duration that Beijing can manipulate.”
Others say the United States could do more to bolster Taiwan’s security by helping it better integrate into the global economic system. Taiwanese officials and analysts argue that strengthening trade links and possibly passing a bilateral trade agreement could help the island reduce its reliance on China, currently its largest trade partner. But China would undoubtedly consider that an aggressive act.
The geopolitical risks of Taiwan’s dependence on the Chinese market were on display this week when just hours after Ms. Pelosi arrived in Taiwan, Beijing moved to suspend exports of natural sand to the island — key for construction — and banned imports from Taiwan of certain types of fruit and fish.
“Economic security is so important to Taiwan’s survival as a democracy,” said Vincent Chao, former political director at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington.
Diversifying American support for Taiwan from arms sales is crucial not only to better defend against China, but also to boost morale for a fellow democratic partner, said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a defense research group in Arlington, Virginia.
“We shouldn’t just be cramming weapons down their throat and robbing them of their agency in terms of determining what their own defense requirements are,” Mr. Stokes said. “What Taiwan needs most from the U.S. is to be treated, as much as possible given the constraints, as a normal partner with respect.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
China says Biden comments likening leader Xi to a dictator ‘extremely absurd and irresponsible’
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s remarks calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “dictator” and China a country with “real economic difficulties” drew fast condemnation from China on Wednesday, cracking open a new rift just after the two countries agreed to tentative steps to stabilize the relationship.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning condemned Biden’s unusually pointed comments as “extremely absurd and irresponsible.”
The clash of words comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded a visit to Beijing on Monday that sought to break the ice in a relationship that has hit a historical low. While both sides saw those talks as productive, they did not result in any significant breakthroughs beyond an agreement to return to a broad agenda for cooperation and competition.
China’s quick response to Biden, a president known for seemingly off-script remarks that venture beyond his administration’s policies, raises questions whether his remarks would undo the limited progress that had been made in Blinken’s carefully engineered trip or whether the two sides would move on.
Biden’s characterization of China comes as the campaign for next year’s presidential election is already taking off, with Republicans accusing him of being weak on China.
Biden also was preparing to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington on Wednesday evening for a lavish state visit where a central theme will be a shared wariness of China.
Biden, at a fundraiser in California on Tuesday night, referred back to January and February’s two-week overflight of what the U.S. says was a Chinese spy balloon. The balloon’s surprise appearance over U.S. skies roiled relations and transfixed the American public.
Speaking to wealthy donors at the event for his 2024 reelection campaign, Biden depicted Xi as out-of-touch and embarrassed by the incident, which ended with the Air Force shooting down the balloon just off the East Coast.
“The reason why Xi Jinping got very upset in terms of when I shot that balloon down with two box cars full of spy equipment is he didn’t know it was there,” Biden told the crowd.
“No, I’m serious,” he added. “That was the great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened.“
Biden also played down trade competition from China, which is the world’s second-biggest economy after the United States but struggling to emerge from COVID-era financial troubles.
“By the way, I promise you, don’t worry about China. Worry about China but don’t worry about China,” Biden said. “I really mean it. China has real economic difficulties.”
Biden’s remarks came hours after his secretary of state, in an interview with MSNBC, had called for the two countries to put the balloon incident behind them, saying it was a chapter that “should be closed.”
In Beijing on Wednesday, Mao told reporters that Biden’s remarks “go totally against facts and seriously violate diplomatic protocol, and severely infringe on China’s political dignity.”
“It is a blatant political provocation,” Mao said.
Mao also reiterated China’s version of the balloon episode, saying the balloon was for meteorological research and had been accidentally blown off course.
Administration officials signaled Wednesday that Biden had no intention of walking back his comments.
Biden and Blinken have made clear “we will continue to responsibly manage this relationship, maintain open lines of communication with the PRC,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, told reporters, using an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.
“But that, of course, does not mean we will not be blunt and forthright about our differences,” including differences on the global competition between democracies and autocracies, Patel said.
U.S.-China tensions have mounted for years as rivalry builds over trade and global influence. Repeated flare-ups have helped escalate the tensions, including over the balloon, U.S. tariffs, sanctions on China, and self-ruled Taiwan.
The U.S. is pressing China to embrace direct communications between Biden, Xi and other senior U.S. and Chinese military and civilian leaders, as a channel to defuse tensions and keep incidents from escalating into open hostilities.
Despite the administration’s diplomatic efforts to soothe relations, analysts point to the Republican political pressure, and note Biden regularly seems to go off-script to criticize Xi.
Bonnie Glaser, Asia director of the George Marshall Fund of the United States, pointed Wednesday to Biden’s state of the union address in February, soon after the balloon flight, as Republican lawmakers in the audience heckled him over China and other issues. Waving a finger in the air, Biden cried out, “Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping! Name me one! Name me one!”
For Biden, “he’s under a lot of criticism from the right. He doesn’t want to be seen as soft on China. He views Xi Jinping as a dictator,” Glaser said.
“And he’s not very good … at differentiating what should be said in public and what should be said in private,” Glaser said. “And the relationship pays a price for it. There’s no doubt about it.”
Xi was likely upset by the claim that he hadn’t been fully informed about the balloon incident, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies and a longtime observer of Chinese politics.
“My sense is that Xi may not want to overreact and put the relationship back on ice again,” Tsang said in an email.
The initial Republican response to Biden’s remarks was approving. “It’s an appropriate description of their system of government,” Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.
While Xi heads a country formally named the People’s Republic of China, he faces no limits on his terms as head of state, commander of the military and leader of the ruling Communist Party, which brooks no challenges to its authority.
In California, Biden had told donors that Xi “wants to have a relationship again.”
Blinken “went over there … did a good job, and it’s going to take time,” he said.
Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
Macron appeals to China’s Xi to ‘bring Russia to its senses’
BEIJING (AP) — Chinese leader Xi Jinping called Thursday for peace talks over Ukraine after French President Emmanuel Macron appealed to him to “bring Russia to its senses,” but Xi gave no indication Beijing would use its leverage as Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic partner to press for a settlement.
Xi gave no sign China, which declared it had a “no limits friendship” with Moscow before last year’s invasion, had changed its stance since calling for peace talks in February.
“Peace talks should resume as soon as possible,” Xi said. He called on other governments to avoid doing anything that might “make the crisis deteriorate or even get out of control.”
Beijing, which sees Moscow as a partner in opposing U.S. domination of global affairs, has tried to appear neutral in the conflict but has given Putin diplomatic support and repeated Russian justifications for the February 2022 attack. Xi received an effusive welcome from Putin when he visited Moscow last month, giving the isolated Russian president a political boost.
The Chinese leader said “legitimate security concerns of all parties” should be considered, a reference to Moscow’s argument that it attacked Ukraine because of the eastward expansion of NATO, the U.S.-European military alliance.
During talks earlier, Macron appealed to Xi to “bring Russia to its senses and bring everyone back to the negotiating table.”
Macron pointed to Chinese support for the United Nations Charter, which calls for respect of a country’s territorial integrity. He said Putin’s announcement of plans to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus violated international agreements and commitments to Xi’s government.
“We need to find a lasting peace,” the French president said. “I believe that this is also an important issue for China.”
Macron was accompanied to Beijing by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a show of European unity.
Von der Leyen said she encouraged Xi to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the Chinese leader “reiterated his willingness to speak when conditions and time are right.”
“I think this is a positive element,” von der Leyen said.
Von der Leyen warned China against sending military equipment to Russia, echoing a warning Wednesday by NATO’s 31 member governments of “severe consequences” for shipments of weapons or ammunition.
“Arming the aggressor is a clear violation of international law,” von der Leyen said. “This would indeed significantly harm the relationship between the European Union and China.”
China is the biggest buyer of Russian oil and gas, which helps prop up the Kremlin’s revenue in the face of Western sanctions. That increases Chinese influence, but Xi appears reluctant to jeopardize that partnership by pressuring Putin.
“China has always adhered to an objective and fair position on the issue of the Ukraine crisis,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning. “We have been an advocate of a political solution to the crisis and a promoter of peace talks.”
Also Wednesday, the French and Chinese governments announced agreements including the purchase of 160 Airbus aircraft by a Chinese leasing company and for their companies to collaborate on nuclear, solar, wind power and biofuel development.
ITF resumes tennis in China with no word on Peng Shuai
TOKYO (AP) — The International Tennis Federation will play tournaments this year in China with no word of a resolution to the case of Chinese doubles player Peng Shuai.
Peng disappeared from public view shortly after accusing a former high-ranking Communist Party official — in a web posting in November of 2021 — of sexual assault.
The ITF, which conducts tournaments below the elite level in its World Tennis Tour, lists its first tournament in China on June 5-11 at Luzhou. The ITF’s last full season in China was 2019, prior to COVID-19.
“The ITF anticipates a resumption of tournament activity within China for each of the ITF Tours later this year,” the ITF said in a statement.
The WTA, which runs the sport’s top-tier women’s events, hasn’t announced if it will resume staging tournaments in China.
In late 2021, WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon announced that the WTA would be suspending all of its tournaments — including the season-ending WTA Finals — that were held in China because of concerns over Peng, costing the tour millions.
The men’s ATP has scheduled several event for later this year in China. It canceled 2022 events because of COVID-19 restrictions in China.
Peng gave a controlled interview a year ago during the Winter Olympics in Beijing and had dinner at the event with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. She left many questions unanswered and has largely been out of public view since then.
Simon has repeatedly called for a “formal investigation” into the allegations made by Peng, and has asked to meet privately with Peng. It’s not clear those conditions have been met.
In a statement announcing the ITF men’s and women’s tournaments returning to China, ITF President David Haggerty said the sport’s world governing body had to invest in the professional events that worked as “the main artery for the top level of the game.”
“As the global guardians of the game, we are passionate about providing a pathway for up and coming talent in all countries, and providing more opportunities for players to play closer to home,” Haggerty said, adding that the ITF was pleased to be returning to countries such as China, Burundi, Cyprus, Trinidad & Tobago and Taiwan.
AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports