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Does China’s soft tone extend to Taiwan?

Tonhe howls China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats have seemed less nervous of late, echoing the tone of more measured officials. But the change in Chinese diplomatic tone has not extended to Taiwan, the self-governing island backed by the United States and claimed by China. This month, China’s Eastern Theater Command, which oversees Taiwan affairs, released a music video titled “My War Eagle Flies Around Treasure Island”. It depicts Chinese jets and warships encircling Taiwan while a singer softly calls a lost love home.

China’s actions are more explicit. It held military exercises around Taiwan in December and January, deploying dozens of warplanes and several warships. China has been trying to erode Taiwan’s border with the mainland. In 2022, Chinese aircraft will enter Taiwan’s air defense identification zone more than 1,700 times (Air defense identification zone), prompting a military alert. China has also been increasing its sorties along the center line of the Taiwan Strait, the de facto maritime border between China and Taiwan. It has carried out 306 such missions since December 1 (see chart).

China’s largest incursion to date occurred on December 25, when 47 aircraft crossed the median line. Chinese spokesman Colonel Shi Yi said the missions were a response to “provocations” by the United States. He may be referring to a bill signed by President Joe Biden on Dec. 23 that authorizes billions of dollars in grants and loans to Taiwan to buy U.S. weapons.

Only $2 billion in loans went into the final spending bill that passed into law. But the U.S. is planning to expand its own navy and train its marines to fight the islands. In January, senior U.S. and Japanese officials said they would cooperate more closely on security and defense, with the United States upgrading its naval presence on Japan’s southwest islands near the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan has also been taking steps to bolster its defenses. President Tsai Ing-wen announced in December that from 2024, men will be required to serve in the military for one year, rather than four months, and that recruits will receive better training. Taiwan plans to spend $19.4 billion on defense in 2023, a 13.9 percent increase from last year. However, experts say these measures are not enough. China spent $230 billion on defense last year. It has expanded naval, missile and nuclear capabilities. What Taiwan really needs is a new strategy that focuses less on large, expensive weapons that cannot withstand a Chinese strike and more on flexible and concealed weapons.

However, in Taiwan’s recent military exercises in the city of Kaohsiung (pictured), the bulky weapons played a central role. Soldiers in red helmets, marking them as invaders from the mainland, huddled in fields as tanks and armored vehicles approached. “Under the strong strength of our combat brigade, the enemy soldiers have retreated,” cheered a Taiwanese announcer.

The drill was aimed at reassuring the Taiwanese population ahead of the Jan. 22 Lunar New Year, which is celebrated on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Polls show the public is skeptical. Last year, more than half of those surveyed said they believed Taiwan would not be able to deter a Chinese invasion for long. Things remained largely quiet, at least for the holiday season. Between 21 and 25 January, only one Chinese aircraft crossed the center line.

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