U.S. Has Made Taiwan Strait Hottest Flashpoint of 2021, China Analysts Say

A pair of Chinese defense experts offered a rare glimpse into Beijing's security mindset on Wednesday when they blamed the United States for turning the Taiwan Strait into the "hottest flashpoint" of the year.

Appearing on Defense Review, a prime-time program carried by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, panelists Du Wenlong and Zhang Bin warned Taipei and Washington against further "collusion," which they claimed was aimed toward Taiwanese independence.

China's ruling Communist Party insists Taiwan is a renegade province that it is determined to bring back under its control—by force if necessary.

Senior government figures, including President Xi Jinping, have impressed on the nation the significance of "unifying" the Chinese mainland with Taiwan, a feat that promises to bring "glory" to the country.

But Beijing's efforts to win hearts and minds in democratic Taiwan have so far been unsuccessful, according to China watchers, and the government's hopes of a "peaceful unification" are further away than any time in recent decades.

The election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016—and her resounding victory in the presidential race of January 2020—signaled a public opinion shift away from sympathy toward Beijing. Her supporters credit this to her party's explicit policy of not seeking Taiwan's de jure independence, but instead maintaining the status quo.

The Chinese leadership, however, continues to describe Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party as seeking independence and "secession" from the mainland, using these charges as justification to escalate military activity in the Taiwan Strait. This has led to an unprecedented increase in security cooperation between Taipei and Washington, beginning under the presidency of Donald Trump.

Du, who is considered one of China's foremost defense analysts, said Beijing's use of the People's Liberation Army to pressure Taiwan was "very effective," as it was perceived as a "credible threat" by officials on the self-ruled island.

Taipei has sought to counter China's military coercion by beefing up its coastal defenses through the procurement of American-made missiles and other defensive arms. The Trump administration sanctioned 11 weapons deals with Taipei, including six last year worth $11.8 billion.

Du called 2020 the "craziest and most dangerous year" of American arms sales to Taiwan. "The figures are crazy and future presidents will find them hard to match," he said on CCTV.

He repeated a Chinese government allegation that the U.S. sells only "rubbish" weapons to Taiwan, which was being bankrupted by Washington's insistence that it increase its defense budget.

"One in every 50 New Taiwan dollars earned now goes to paying for U.S. weapons," added Du, who said the Tsai administration was "hugging America's thigh" by indiscriminately importing arms.

The administration of Joe Biden has described Washington's support for Taiwan's democracy as "rock solid." In the president's first few weeks in office, a U.S. Navy warship has sailed through the Taiwan Strait and two aircraft carriers have conducted military exercises in the contested South China Sea.

Du cast doubt on the credibility of America's willingness to deter a Chinese attack, calling it "an illusion of protection."

He and Zhang—the latter a veteran broadcaster at state-owned China National Radio—agreed that the United States was to blame for turning the Taiwan Strait into the "hottest flashpoint of 2021."

"Taiwan is banking on the U.S. to come to its defense," said Zhang. "U.S. interference is the root of the problem."

In a rare deviation from official rhetoric, however, Zhang acknowledged that Tsai says she wants to "maintain the status quo"—but then suggested this was a lie to conceal her true intention of declaring independence.

"Our defense ministry's recent statement—that Taiwan independence means war—is a very clear signal from the military," he said. "It will have shattered Taiwan independence dreams."

Last month, Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office said the country would "never" renounce the use of force in its goal to capture Taiwan.

Du said consistent messaging from China's defense, foreign and Taiwan affairs departments showed the "severe consequences" of standing against unification of the mainland.

Both experts said continued "collusion" between Tsai's party and Washington would only cause further aggression from China.

Shu Hsiao-huang, a strategy analyst with Taiwan's national security think tank, said Beijing needed to "review" its own posture in the Taiwan Strait.

"The Chinese analysts will say Taiwan is colluding with the United States, but they won't admit that the current situation in the Taiwan Strait is self-inflicted," said Shu, who researches U.S. defense policy and advanced military technologies for the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

"Because of Beijing's constant provocation and threats of war, the U.S. now views China as the troublemaker and the source of regional instability," he said. "It is for this reason that Washington was willing to break down barriers to stronger U.S.-Taiwan ties, including increased arms sales."

Shu said China's tougher rhetoric around Taiwan may belie domestic frailties within the Communist Party, pointing to the leadership challenge that Xi is likely to face when he seeks a third term next year.

Tank Traps Line Taiwan Island Near China
File photo: Anti-tank fortifications from previous conflicts line the shore along a beach in Lieyu, an outlying island of Kinmen that is the closest point between Taiwan and China, on February 4. The Chinese city of Xiamen can be seen in the background. An Rong Xu/Getty Images