On Aug. 9, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar became the highest-level U.S. official to visit Taiwan since 1979.
While the visit was officially to congratulate the island nation on its COVID-19 response, HHS put out a statement saying the United States wanted to reaffirm its commitment to relations with Taiwan “in contrast to authoritarian systems.”
Taiwan had probably better hope that commitment stays in place, because across the Taiwan Strait, the authoritarian system Azar was unsubtly referencing is involved in a serious military buildup. And, just for good measure, it held live-fire drills less than 400 miles north of Taiwan after the secretary’s trip as a sign of both strength and protest.
Just four days before Azar’s visit, the South China Morning Post reported on a massing of amphibious weapons systems on the mainland Chinese coast. Satellite photos showed a number of Type 05 amphibious armored vehicles, which are designed for the People’s Liberation Army’s Marine Corps, transferred to the Eastern Theater Command.
While the Hong Kong-based SCMP is generally Beijing-friendly in its coverage, the images come from Kanwa Asian Defense, an reputable publication in that arena. The Type 05s seen in the photos are the ZTD-05 variant, which is an attack vehicle.
How to describe the Type 05 amphibious vehicle? Well, picture those boats that landed at Normandy. Then picture them becoming tanks the second they hit land.
You can see how putting a cluster of them across the Taiwan Strait is ratting a few sabers.
Here’s a video of the Type 05 in action from Chinese propaganda mill CGTN:
While the Type 05s were designed for the Chinese Marine Corps, the green camouflage of the vehicles spotted in the satellite photos indicated they belong to the ground forces.
“The PLA ground forces want to play an active role in the Taiwan issue because so far their weapon systems are powerful enough to attack Taiwan without the help of missile force,” said Andrei Chang, chief editor of Kanwa Asian Defense, according to the SCMP.
“Further evidence is that the PLA are also deploying the powerful Type PCL191 multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to the ground forces of the Eastern Theatre Command.”
That mobile missile platform can hit pretty much any target on the western side of Taiwan within a 220-mile range.
Tensions between Taiwan and China continue to escalate, satellite images reportedly show amphibious armoured vehicles and mobile missile launchers massing at military bases near the island nation. pic.twitter.com/OhQWOekbXV
— Dwain Jude D’silva ?? (@JudeDwain) August 9, 2020
“Under the reunification of Taiwan mission, the infantry force understands that the need for amphibious combat involved in island seizure is more important than land fights,” Hong Kong-based military analyst Song Zhongping told the SCMP.
“However, the personnel ratio of existing marines is not enough to meet today’s warfare needs. While the infantry has enough manpower and powerful amphibious weapons, it’s quite natural for them to make such changes to play a more active role.”
Meanwhile, beginning last Tuesday, the Chinese military started two live-fire drills in the East China Sea near the Zhoushan archipelago, which is only 340 miles north of Taiwan.
That live-fire drill lasted three days. On Sunday, the PLA began a second two-day live-fire drill.
Azar’s visit wasn’t the only reason that Beijing was unhappy with Taiwan, mind you.
In January, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected in a landslide — in part because of her tough stance on China, including a rejection of the “One China Policy,” which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually rejoin the mainland. In the wake of the election, she told Beijing to “face reality” on the issue.
“We hope China can thoroughly understand the opinion and will expressed by Taiwanese people in this election and review their current policies,” she told reporters after her victory, according to The Guardian.
The United States has also increased arms sales to Taiwan under the Trump administration. In July, Lockheed Martin announced a $620 billion contract to upgrade Taiwan’s missile defense systems. Just Friday, Taiwan also finalized a deal with Lockheed Martin to buy $62 billion in F-16 fighter jets.
China announced it would sanction the American defense contractor giant over the sales.
But the best barometer of what tack Beijing is taking, as always, is China’s multifarious media propaganda mills — which all seemed to point toward a hardening stance toward Taiwan.
“The PLA Eastern Theater Command announced on Thursday a series of recent consecutive, true-to-life drills in the Taiwan Straits and its northern and southern ends that featured multiple military branches in multiple directions. This, experts said, is an obvious response to recent US and Taiwan secessionists’ provocative moves, highlighted by US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s Taiwan visit,” the Global Times, easily the worst-written of major China’s English-language publications, reported this weekend.
“By announcing the F-16 deal has been finalized, the US is attempting to show its tough stance, and the move could be considered as corresponding to the PLA drills, Ni Feng, director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Saturday.
“Under these circumstances, the US move is even more dangerous, as it steps on and even crosses the Chinese mainland’s red line on the Taiwan question, Ni said, noting that the risk of a confrontation continues to rise.”
Notice how these propaganda outlets always quote “experts” who are in no way Chinese Communist Party functionaries but simply offering their educated opinion of their free will. Right. CGTN is usually one of the more polished Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces, but here was its ungrammatical take on the exercises:
“Given the ‘unprecedented’ drills and the potent response from the Chinese mainland, is mainland’s policy on Taiwan witnessing some kind of shift where it has significantly hardened its position on Taiwan?” CGTN asked in a Sunday piece.
“In a way, it surely has. The fact that the [People’s Republic of China] government, which normally would not give a political reason for military exercises or mention a particular target, this time explicitly stated its target and aims, gives very clear clues.”
Disregarding the fact that “mainland’s policy on Taiwan” can’t witness itself having “some kind of shift,” both of these articles give a clear indication that the mainland means business when it comes to pursuing the “One China Policy.”
Xi Jinping has already had a major win this year in subsuming Hong Kong, tearing up the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration treaty that established the one-country-two-systems governing structure by forcing the Hong Kong national security law down the SAR’s throat. Taiwan could well be his next area of attention.
Without strong U.S. support for Tsai Ing-wen or her country, Xi will have even less patience for them than he has now. As it stands, Beijing’s military movements — and the rhetoric surrounding them — are problematic enough.
In 2019, having recently declared as a Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden mocked Trump’s hard line on China, particularly in trade.
“China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man … they can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains in the east, I mean in the west,” he said, according to The Hill.
Beijing, Biden said, “can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what, they’re not, they’re not competition for us.”
Biden now wants to pretend he’s tough on China and it’s actually Trump who’s the weak one.
Looking across that strait at those amphibious vehicles and seeing those live-fire drills just a few hundred miles to the north, I would say Tsai Ing-wen might be less inclined to believe the man who said that the government behind it was “not bad folks.”
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