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US accused of ‘sabre-rattling’ over Taiwan

The view that Washington is acting provocatively is shared across much of Asia

Just 10km from the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen and almost 190km off the coast of the main island of Taiwan, the Kinmen archipelago offers attractive grounds for local fishermen. But the Taiwanese coast guard patrols the waters around the islands, stopping vessels from the mainland and apprehending the fishermen on board.

One such confrontation ended tragically this week when a fishing boat capsized as, according to the Taiwanese authorities, it tried to avoid an inspection by speeding away. All four fishermen on board fell into the water and although the coast guard rescued them and took them to hospital, two died.

Zhu Fenglian, a spokeswoman for the Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing, condemned what she described as a malicious incident and blamed the Taiwanese authorities.

“We warn the relevant parties in Taiwan to respect the historical fact that fishermen from both sides of the Taiwan Strait operate in the traditional fishing areas of the Taiwan Strait and ensure the personal safety of mainland fishermen, effectively preventing the recurrence of such incidents,” she said.


It was the latest in a series of clashes between mainland China and Taiwan since Lai Ching-te won last month’s presidential election on the self-governing island. Earlier this month Beijing moved a civilian flight path closer to the median line between Taiwan and the mainland, prompting Taipei to retaliate by postponing a planned easing of restrictions on tourism from mainland China.

Beijing’s response to the death of the fishermen has been relatively restrained so far, and its reaction to Lai’s election has been more muted than many Taiwanese feared. The Chinese Communist Party views Lai as a separatist who has spoken in the past in favour of Taiwanese independence, although he has made clear that he does not favour making a formal declaration of independent statehood.

Cui Tiankai, who was China’s ambassador to Washington from 2013 until 2021, told an audience there last month that Beijing would not fall into a trap by being provoked into war over Taiwan. He said that China would achieve reunification in a way that best served the interests of “the entire Chinese nation”.

“Someone may be preparing for us that they will supply military assistance, they will supply weapons for proxy war, and Chinese will be killing Chinese. We will not fall into that trap,” he said.

Washington dismisses as propaganda any suggestion that it is acting provocatively over Taiwan but that view is shared not only in China but across much of Asia. A new report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) identifies that perception as one of the obstacles Taiwan faces as it seeks to build international support.

The report emerged from a series of dialogues last year between experts from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, Nigeria, South Korea and the United States. Many reported that within their countries and regions the US is seen as a key contributor to escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

“Beijing also has sought to warn countries about US efforts to construct an ‘Asian Nato’ and to link such efforts to US support for Taiwan. Beijing suggests that Washington pushed for Nato’s eastward expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union and that such efforts precipitated war in Ukraine. Following this logic Asian countries, therefore, must be alert to the risk of the United States repeating such a cycle of alliance expansion in Asia and triggering conflict in the Taiwan Strait,” the report says.

Its authors Jude Blanchette, Ryan Hass and Lily McElwee say that Washington should make clear that it does not have designs on Taiwan’s ultimate status in relation to the People’s Republic of China. They suggest that American sabre-rattling over Taiwan may also be counterproductive as each of its warnings that Beijing is preparing to invade the island diminishes in credibility.

Rumi Aoyama from Tokyo’s Waseda University, one of the contributors to the report, said that if the US wants to rally the support of countries around the world it should publicly reassure Beijing as well as seeking to deter it.

“The reason why many countries have not been openly supportive of US policy on Taiwan is not because China is winning the narrative war, but because the priority for these countries is to ensure peace and stability in the Pacific region,” he said.

“Some countries may have concerns that US policy on Taiwan could undermine stability across the Taiwan Strait. Declaring a policy of reassurance toward China could allay these concerns and win their support.”