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Stronger response urged from U.S. to China's growing coercion near Taiwan

06/11/2024 10:35 PM
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Ben Lewis, independent defense analyst and co-founder of PLATracker. CNA photo June 10, 2024
Ben Lewis, independent defense analyst and co-founder of PLATracker. CNA photo June 10, 2024

Washington, June 10 (CNA) The United States should respond more strongly to China's growing gray zone coercion near Taiwan to help the country maintain the status quo in the region, said academics attending a forum hosted by The Project 2049 Institute in Arlington, Virginia on Monday.

Since September 2020, the frequency, scale, diversity and complexity of People's Liberation Army (PLA) activity near Taiwan have all increased, Ben Lewis, told the forum titled "Under Pressure: China's Coercive Campaign in the Taiwan Strait."

"The PLA is transitioning from kind of having a presence to making the presence mean something by training," said Lewis, a Washington-based independent defense analyst who specializes in Chinese military development and Taiwan security issues.

First and foremost this gives the PLA a chance to practice, he said, adding that they are practicing joint air operations and practicing bringing in new air capabilities into their air operations.

Secondly, it puts a strain on Taiwan's defenses, forcing it to occasionally scramble its jets in response, while it is also a tool for Beijing to signal its displeasure with geopolitical developments involving Taiwan, said Lewis, also a co-founder of PLATracker -- a site dedicated to providing data-driven analysis of Chinese military activity and regional security developments in Asia.

He stressed that this represents the normalization of these activities to ensure the PLA's presence is not seen as provocative over time.

"They've been very successful in making it so that the press doesn't comment on 15 aircraft crossing the medium line," he said. "You have to kind of hit 25 or 30 now for it to hit the wires."

"To assert a de facto control over the airspace around Taiwan, they go up to the contiguous zone" and have naval ships around the island now on a near permanent basis, he added.

Subsequently, "the PLA is always around and it doesn't really catch people's eyes as much as it used to," he said.

Similarly with the law enforcement operations around the Taiwan-control Kinmen Islands, Beijing stated outright that the goal was normalizing the presence of the Chinese coast guard in prohibited waters off Kinmen, he said.

Lewis suggested Taiwan's defense ministry improve its information sharing practices with relation to Beijing's moves, which would also give people more confidence in Taiwan's ability to defend itself.

In his opinion, the cross-strait status quo is being changed on a daily basis, but support by Washington for the status quo is "inadequate."

Against such a backdrop, Lewis called for the U.S. to conduct law enforcement drills with Taiwan's coast guard.

It is a fairly non provocative way to not only show support, but also learn about what China is doing, he added.

He also contended that the U.S. needs to more often and more harshly publicly condemn the PLA's destabilizing activities, asserting that the Taiwan Relations Act does apply to non-kinetic changes to the status quo.

Echoing Lewis' recommendations, Dan Blumenthal, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that the U.S. and Taiwan's coast guard should hold joint law-enforcement drills.

He also suggested that under the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.S. and its partners should team up to deter China's efforts to normalize the intrusions of its war planes into Taiwan's air defense identification zone.

In addition, Blumenthal said, the U.S. and the international community should say something about Taiwan's maritime rights under international law, if China claims that Taiwan does not have normal rights under international law.

Randall Schriver, chairman of the Project 2049 Institute, said some people call the Chinese tendency toward incrementalism "salami slicing."

"But no strong response, robust response in the gray zone and to coercive activities will lead to pocketing of those gains as new normals," he said.

(By Flor Wang and Shih Hsiu-chaun)

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