On July 15, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced the Biden administration’s fifth arms sale to Taiwan, the fourth to the island in 2022. The package, including spare and repair parts for tanks and combat vehicles, as well as U.S. government and contractor technical and logistical support, is worth an estimated $108 million.
The Pentagon stated that the sale was consistent with “U.S. law and policy as expressed in Public Law 96-8” – i.e., the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. It noted that the arms sale supports Taiwan’s “continuing efforts to modernize its armed forces and to maintain a credible defensive capability;” contributes to the island’s “goal of maintaining its military capability while further enhancing interoperability with the United States and other allies;” and “will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”
After the announcement of the Taiwan arms sale, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a 10-aircraft incursion into Taiwan’s southwestern Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). It was the largest sortie thus far in July, comprising a Y-8 ASW (anti-submarine warfare) aircraft, a Y-8 EW (electronic warfare) aircraft, an H-6 bomber, six fighters (two J-11s, two J-16s, two JH-7s), and a Z-9 ASW helicopter.
What makes this incursion unique, however, is that it marked the first time that Beijing has responded to an U.S. arms sale to Taiwan with sorties into Taipei’s southwestern ADIZ. The composition of the incursion – especially the presence of the PLA Navy Z-9 ASW helicopter – strongly suggests that the sorties were part joint cross-service “combat readiness patrols” that the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command typically conducts in response to U.S. political outreach to Taiwan (see here, here, and here). The diagram of the flightpath of the PLA sorties provided by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) also appears to show that several of the aircraft may have crossed the southwestern portion of the Median Line.
Prior to the July 15 incursion there was no correlation between U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and PLA ADIZ incursions. We have a sample size of 11 arms sales to Taiwan – six by the Trump administration and five by the Biden administration – for which there are corresponding PLA ADIZ incursion data, dating back to mid-September 2019.
In October 2020, the Trump administration announced four arms sales to Taiwan: six MS-110 multispectral airborne reconnaissance pod systems; 135 AGM-84H Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) missiles; 11 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) M142 launchers and related equipment; and up to 100 Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems (HCDS). In November 2020, the Trump administration approved the sale of 4 weapons-ready MQ-9B drones, and in the following month approved the sale of a Field Information Communications System (FICS).
The Biden administration approved its first arms sale to Taiwan in August 2021: 40 155mm M109A6 Paladin Medium Self-Propelled Howitzer Systems. In February 2022, the U.S. sold equipment and services to “sustain, maintain, and improve” the Patriot missile defense system used by Taiwan, and followed it up in April with the additional sale of equipment, training, and other items to support the Patriot system. In June 2022, the U.S. approved the sale to Taiwan of ship and ship system spare parts.
In none of these 10 cases did China respond to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan with aerial incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ. Beijing condemned the arms sales as undermining China’s sovereignty and in violation of the three U.S.-China joint “communiques,” which it views as a pledge by the U.S. to decrease arms sales to Taiwan. For instance, China’s Ministry of National Defense denounced the Trump’s administration’s deal to sell Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Taiwan and urged the U.S. “to immediately withdraw plans of arms sales to Taiwan, cease U.S.-Taiwan military contacts and stop selling weapons to the island.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry also announced it was sanctioning U.S. defense contractors, including Boeing, the lead contractor on the Harpoon deal.
When Washington announced the sale of the Paladin self-propelled howitzers to Taiwan, China’s Foreign Ministry denounced it as “sending a wrong signal to Taiwanese independence forces, and causing serious damage to China-U.S. relations and the stability of the Taiwan Strait. China resolutely opposes [the sale] and has made a solemn representation to the U.S.”
When Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in June, he complained about Washington’s sale of ship spare parts to Taiwan. According to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV’s military channel, Wei told Austin that the arms sale “seriously undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests,” and that China “firmly opposes and strongly condemns it.”
On the face of it, China’s reaction to the sale of tank and combat vehicle spare parts and services with an aerial incursion appears peculiar, given its previous responses. In strategic terms, tank spares hardly constitute a game changer, and the deal pales in comparison to earlier sales of weapons systems such as Harpoon missiles or HIMARS that can aid Taiwan’s asymmetric defense capabilities. What has caused Beijing to apparently change tack in response to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed even greater strain on the already-stressed bilateral relationship between the Washington and Beijing. The Biden administration is concerned with China’s “no limits” entente with Russia, and views Beijing’s refusal to condemn the invasion (or to even call it as such) and join Western-led sanctions as China taking Moscow’s side in the conflict. The Ukraine conflict has also resulted in fear that Taiwan is at risk of invasion by China, with the director of the CIA warning that Russia’s experience is affecting Beijing’s calculus on when and how – not whether – to attack Taiwan.
The fear of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was on U.S. President Joe Biden’s mind in May when he answered “yes” to a reporter’s question on whether he was “was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan.” Biden said that “the idea that [Taiwan] can be taken by force… it’s just not appropriate.” He also referred to the PLA’s incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ: “They are already flirting with danger right now by flying so close and all the maneuvers that they are undertaking.” At the Shangri-la Dialogue, Austin accused China of acting with “growing coercion” toward Taiwan, as witnessed in “a steady increase in provocative and destabilizing military activity” near the island. “And that includes PLA aircraft flying near Taiwan in record numbers in recent months, and nearly on a daily basis,” Austin said.
Indeed, the PLA launched 553 sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ in the first six months of 2022 – a 57 percent increase over the 352 sorties for the same period in 2021. This increase in ADIZ incursions, however, has not occurred in a vacuum. China-U.S. exchanges and interactions over Taiwan are now ensnared in a downward action-reaction spiral: The more the U.S. seeks to deter China from military adventurism across the Taiwan Strait, the more likely Beijing is to view those attempts as undermining the “One China” policy and promoting Taiwan independence. Thus, China has doubled down on a hardline position on Taiwan in response to growing calls for the U.S. to end its policy of “strategic ambiguity,” an increase in the number of congressional delegations visiting the island, as well as legislative support for Taipei on Capitol Hill.
At the Shangri-la Dialogue, Wei warned that Beijing “will not hesitate to fight, we will fight at all costs” over Taiwan independence. “This is the only choice for China,” he added. When General Li Zuocheng, chief of the Central Military Commission’s joint staff department, met with his U.S. counterpart, General Mark Milley, virtually, he called on Washington to end military relations with Taiwan, and “avoid shocks to Sino-U.S. relations and the stability of the Taiwan Strait,” warning that “if anyone provokes arbitrarily, it will inevitably be met with a firm counterstrike by the Chinese people.” On the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Bali, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejected any comparison between Taiwan and Ukraine, and warned “some countries” against deliberately [creating] tensions in the Taiwan Strait.”
On July 19, the Financial Times reported that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi intends to lead a delegation to Taiwan in August. Given that Beijing has responded to previous congressional visits with large-scale incursions in conjunction with joint cross-service drills around Taiwan, Pelosi’s visit would add to an already tense situation. She would be only the second incumbent speaker of the House – after Newt Gingrich in 1997 – to visit Taiwan since the U.S. switched diplomatic ties to Beijing in 1979, and Beijing will consider itself forced into taking escalatory measures.
If Pelosi goes ahead with her visit, we will certainly witness large-scale incursions and joint drills but also possibly high-risk PLA incursions across the Median Line or even a return to circumnavigation sorties. Biden is aware of the escalatory risks associated with the speaker’s visit. On July 20 he said that U.S. military officials believe it is “not a good idea” for the speaker to visit the island now but did not directly suggest that Pelosi not travel to Taiwan. It remains to be seen if the president is prepared to expend precious political capital on the issue or even if the speaker can be dissuaded.