China celebrated its National Day not simply with the usual fireworks and military parades, but by sending progressively larger sorties of fighter jets and bombers perilously close to the democratically governed island of Taiwan.
Some 38 warplanes breached the island’s air defense identification zone last Friday, followed by another 39 on Saturday, 16 on Sunday, and 52 on Monday, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. The sorties have been increasing not just in number but some in recent days have also taken place at night and have made use of the newest bombers the mainland has to display, rather than the slower reconnaissance aircraft usually used.
The number of flights picked up after the United States, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and the Netherlands conducted joint military training exercises about 450 miles from Taiwan, drills that Beijing views as a provocation. But China has been sending waves of warplanes near the island for months, in what appears to be a long-term effort.
It is a campaign designed to intimidate, to send a message that China still considers Taiwan part of its empire under its “one China” policy. And woe if Taiwan overreaches in exerting its independence and broadening its relationships with the rest of the world and with international organizations.
The most immediate danger, of course, is the very real risk of an accident or a miscalculation that would lead to a broader conflict.
The latter point was a possibility raised by the US State Department in its official reaction after the weekend escalation in activity in the skies around Taiwan.
“The United States is very concerned by the People’s Republic of China’s provocative military activity near Taiwan, which is destabilizing, risks miscalculations, and undermines regional peace and stability,” said spokesman Ned Price. “We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coercion against Taiwan.”
“The US commitment to Taiwan is rock solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region,” he added. “We will continue to stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values and deepen our ties with democratic Taiwan.”
The United States has in the past done far more than issue statements of support. Under the more than four-decades-old Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has supplied most of Taiwan’s weaponry. In 2019 the Trump administration, with strong bipartisan support from Congress, approved the sale of some $8 billion in F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan. This year Taiwan is expected to spend about $1.4 billion for new jets.
But Taiwan’s future security is not a function of its weaponry alone. Another source of empowerment against Beijing’s incursion is the increasing acceptance of Taiwan among Western nations (a delegation of French senators arrived Monday) and as a valued member of such international groups as the World Trade Organization, where in deference to mainland China’s sensitivities it is known as the “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu.”
Now as Taiwan’s own National Day approaches this Sunday, it is once again reaching out — this time it has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. That it did so a week after China submitted its own application to join the regional trade pact may also account for the stepped-up Chinese saber-rattling.
“Taiwan is Taiwan, and it is not part of the People’s Republic of China,” Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement over the weekend. “The People’s Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan for a single day.”
To which China’s Taiwan Affairs Office responded, “Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory and has never been a country.” It added, “Taiwan independence is a dead end.”
No Chinese threat should be taken as an idle one.
China’s increasing dominance of Hong Kong and its steady erosion of freedoms there has been a sobering lesson for Taiwan. In fact, a record number of Hong Kong residents (more than 10,000) opted to move to Taiwan in the wake of China’s crackdown on protesters.
Taiwan’s longstanding support from the United States, Japan, and Australia provides a measure of protection that should mean the current campaign of Chinese harassment is unlikely to escalate. But as Taiwan is forced to scramble its own jets, the possibility of that miscalculation Price warned of grows. Perhaps a word from President Biden himself wouldn’t hurt to emphasize the depth of this nation’s abiding interest in regional stability.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.