China surrounds Taiwan to intimidate its new president

China surrounds Taiwan to intimidate its new president
China surrounds Taiwan to intimidate its new president

” Lhe independence forces will end up with broken skulls and bloodied. » This Thursday, at a press conference, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Wang Wenbin, did not mince his words – a worthy representative of wolf-warrior diplomats, if not the excesses of the Mao era. It actually took up a formula used by Xi Jinping for the Hong Kong people at the end of 2019, this time with the new Taiwanese president, Lai Ching-te, who was sworn in on May 20 in his sights.

After less than two days of silence, Beijing launched major military maneuvers, called “United Sword 2024A”, encircling the islands of the Taiwanese archipelago, and leading incursions into restricted waters, close to the Taiwanese coast and in principle prohibited to Chinese warships.

Having now become regular since August 2022, these military exercises are first and foremost psychological warfare operations, accompanied by a real “bombardment” of disinformation and a “battle of narratives”. China first tries to impose the idea that the tiny neighboring island “provoked” its military response. Li Xi, spokesperson for the Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA, the official name of the Chinese army), immediately presented the Chinese operations as “severe punishment for the separatist acts of the forces.” Taiwan separatists” and a stern warning against interference and provocation by external forces.”

For the Chinese Communist Party, which claims Taiwan for its colonization in the 19th centurye century by the Qing empire, the Taiwanese leaders, at the head of a state which was never part of the People’s Republic of China, would be “separatists” wanting to detach part of Chinese territory.

Psychological warfare

To explain the anger of the Chinese executive after the inaugural ceremony of Lai Ching-te, an article from the London daily Financial Times highlighted details in his inauguration speech. In summary, the new Taiwanese president would have insisted too much on the distinctions between China and Taiwan, giving way to accusations from Beijing. “The Republic of China [nom officiel de Taïwan, NDLR] and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other,” he recalled.

But this justification for Chinese reprisals, put forward first by analysts close to the opposition and the Kuomintang, the “Chinese Nationalist Party”, favorable to conciliation with the continent, does not convince international experts. “Lai has not given Beijing reasons to launch large-scale exercises,” says Marc Julienne, Asia director of Ifri (the French Institute of International Relations). This type of joint exercise is planned in advance, well before Lai’s inaugural speech, and moreover, all the specialists and the Taiwanese themselves had anticipated the maneuvers. We just didn’t know the date or the extent. »

This type of joint exercise is planned in advance, well before Lai’s inaugural speechMarc Julienne

In the eyes of the vast majority of specialists, the text of the inauguration speech is in reality flawless, confirming that Lai will perpetuate the very cautious line of his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen, and will keep his hand outstretched to China. “His speech is balanced, peaceful, focused on dialogue with Beijing and cooperation with the world,” judges Marc Julienne. The difference we note with Ms. Tsai’s style is, and I agree on this point with Katherine Hill’s analysis in the Financial Times, that he departs from the subtlety of his predecessor to qualify the political entities on both sides of the strait. Lai is not Tsai. Even if he has claimed on numerous occasions to follow in his footsteps, they have their differences, their personality, their style. The Taiwanese government does not become more threatening or more destabilizing. But Beijing seizes every pretext to push coercion further. »

In fact, the problem for the Chinese Communist Party is Lai Ching-te himself. Orphan of a coal miner, he is a representative of the hard core of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the “green” camp, which was born in the demand for independence and democracy in the face of the Kuomintang dictatorship. took refuge on the island after the communist victory of 1949. In 2014, Lai, then mayor of the green bastion of Tainan, went to Shanghai and dared to tell the Chinese his four truths about Taiwan and Tian’anmen – a frank talk which has since earned him the treatment of a “troublemaker” by Chinese officials.

Much less “tongue-in-cheek” than the big bourgeois technocrat Tsai Ing-wen, he refuses to let himself be drawn into the absurd sophistry necessary to avoid making Beijing lose face, whose claim on Taiwan is completely out of step with reality. . Some diplomats and experts already regret this less subtle style – others, on the contrary, rejoice in it, convinced that the eternal accommodations with China on the contrary open up an avenue for attacking democracies and destabilizing the world order.

Political crisis

In this way, the “United Sword 2024A” maneuvers are a test for the new Taiwanese presidency. Does not “going to bed” in advance bear fruit? Lai’s more direct style will obviously not have cost him more than Tsai. “This exercise is slightly less important than that of August 2022, but larger than April and August 2023,” assesses Marc Julienne. The fact of having associated the Chinese coast guard for maneuvers around the archipelagos administered by Taiwan close to the Chinese coast is an additional measure of pressure. »

Around the islands of Dongyin (Matsu archipelago) and Wuqiu (Kinmen island canton), Chinese coast guard vessels carried out incursions into “restricted waters” for more than an hour on Thursday morning, the equivalent in international maritime law of the contiguous zone (12 to 24 nautical miles) around territorial waters (less than 12 nautical miles). Since February, China has multiplied such incursions, failing the Taiwanese coast guard, unable to stop them completely, without initiating a much harsher confrontation which would risk provoking a major escalation.

As of Friday morning, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry counted 19 Chinese warships and 16 Chinese coast guard vessels involved, slightly fewer than during a record deployment of 20 warships in September 2023. With 49 Chinese aircraft engaged, including 35 having penetrated the Adiz (air defense identification zone, a large airspace around the Taiwanese islands), the air deployment is also the largest of the year 2024. However, several aspects of the maneuvers are significantly less threatening than in previous ones. “United Sword 2024A” is limited in principle to two days, while the August 2022 maneuvers, launched following the visit of Nancy Pelosi, at the time Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, were spread over several weeks.

Beijing seizes every pretext to push coercion furtherMarc Julienne

Beijing did not conduct any live fire exercises on the first day, while in August 2022, missiles fired from the continent even passed directly over the main island of Taiwan. Some had even fallen back into the Japanese exclusive economic zone, sending a worrying message to Tokyo. Finally, unlike the summer of 2022, the encirclement drawn by the maneuvers represents a large breach, not providing for any deployment facing the port of Keelung, in the northeast of Taiwan, and towards Japan.

Blockade simulation or rehearsal for a general invasion? Chinese propaganda wanted to give the most alarming interpretation. According to Li Xi, spokesperson for the PLA’s Eastern Command, the objective would have been to dismantle the “capacity to seize power and [mener des] joint strikes, as well as taking control of key territories.”

Aware of the risk of demoralization of its population, Taipei did not sit idly by broadcasting videos of the deployments of the Feng III (HF-3) platforms, the latest Taiwanese launch vehicle and supersonic anti-ship missiles – from what to match the Ukrainian exploits on the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The stakes are all the more important for the new Taiwanese presidency as, having barely been inaugurated, Lai Ching-te must face a serious institutional and political crisis.

With a majority in the assembly, the Kuomintang has already proposed a law which would considerably strengthen the powers of investigation and control of parliamentarians, imposing on the new president an annual speech followed by questions at short notice, a humiliating session which would inevitably weaken. For Lai Ching-te’s PDP, this reform would risk upsetting the institutional balance of the regime and putting the president at the mercy of the chambers.

At the end of last week, debates on the subject turned into fistfights – with a PDP deputy ending up hospitalized. And since then, demonstrations against the reform have been held daily in front of the assembly, recalling the “Sunflower Movement”, the occupation which marked the end of the last Kuomintang presidency, in early 2014.

A political crisis which heralds a divided Taiwanese democracy at the moment when it is most threatened. Especially since the current Chinese maneuvers are obviously only the first in a long series – the 2024A precision seems to promise at least a 2024B. As the American elections approach, where firmness against Beijing will be one of the key campaign themes, the communist leaders are putting forward their pieces one by one to try to defeat Lai Ching-te and Joe Biden.

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