Ties between top world powers China and the U.S. had been deteriorating for some time, and the international crisis only served to exacerbate them. As the Chinese leader spoke of hope for the new year, his officials issued a stark warning in response to the U.S. military posing a year-end challenge in the sensitive Taiwan Strait.
In the latest affront, the U.S. Navy conducted a rare double-warship pass through the Taiwan Strait with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS John S. McCain and USS Curtis Wilbur.
In response to the move, the second such sail-through this month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin expressed China’s “firm opposition” and warned against future moves in remarks affirmed to Newsweek by Beijing’s embassy in Washington.
“The Chinese side was closely following and fully aware of the U.S. military vessels’ passage through the Taiwan Strait,” Wang said. “The U.S. warships have repeatedly flaunted their prowess in the Taiwan Strait, provoked and stirred up trouble, sent wrong signals to the Taiwan independence forces, and seriously jeopardized peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
He said the People’s Liberation Army would remain vigilant against such perceived threats.
“China will continue to be on high alert, ready to respond to all threats and provocations at any time, and resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Wang said. “We urge the U.S. side to play a constructive role for regional peace and stability rather than doing the contrary.”
Wang also referred to remarks made by PLA Senior Colonel Wu Qian, who issued similar words of caution against the U.S. “flexing muscles” at the maritime flashpoint where China routinely scrambles its forces against such moves.
The Taiwan Defense Ministry also issued a statement regarding the passage of the U.S. warships.
“The Taiwanese military used joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as a way to grasp the relevant dynamics and actions of ships and aircraft in the surrounding seas and airspaces,” a statement sent to Newsweek by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office read.
The U.S. 7th Fleet, for its part, maintained that the action was taken “in accordance with international law.”
“The ships’ transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the fleet’s public affairs department said Wednesday. “The United States military will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
Those words were recently echoed by a Navy spokesperson who maintained that “the vast majority of our interactions with the PLA” throughout the region, including the East and South China Seas “are safe and in accordance with international norms.”
“We expect the PLA to operate in accordance with the same,” the spokesperson told Newsweek, noting that “attempts to misconstrue or sensationalize our operations are irresponsible and counterproductive.”
Xi, for his part, adopted a characteristically measured tone on Thursday as he delivered an annual message to reflect on 2020 and set the stage for 2021.
The Chinese leader championed frontline workers from health workers and scientists to soldiers and civilian volunteers in the country’s collective fight against the novel coronavirus. The disease was first observed about a year ago in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and has since spread worldwide, infecting 83 million people and killing more than 1.8 million.
While the West continues to suffer the worst of the virus, China has largely recovered, and Xi took the opportunity to tout his country’s return to normalcy and the attainment of its economic growth goals with record-breaking trade figures.
The People’s Republic was set to be the only major economy in the world to expand this year.
“I am proud of our great motherland and people, as well as the unyielding national spirit. Only in hard times can courage and perseverance be manifested,” Xi said. “Only after polishing can a piece of jade be finer. We overcame the impact of the pandemic, and made great achievements in coordinating prevention and control and in economic and social development.”
While fighting the pandemic, China managed to combat disastrous floods, alleviate poverty and send a robot to plant its flag on the Moon.
However, the year was also rife with tensions.
China consolidated central government influence over restive semi-autonomous Hong Kong and engaged in a deadly high-altitude border clash with neighboring India. It stepped up pressure on Japan by increasing patrols near disputed East China Sea islands, and engaged in a contentious trade conflict with Australia.
Beijing also drew unprecedented international scrutiny for its reeducation camps in Xinjiang province, where the United Nations has estimated more than a million people, most of them members of the majority-Muslim Uighur community, were detained.
China has vehemently defended itself against criticisms of its domestic and foreign policies, but nowhere have Chinese officials reacted so strongly as the unprecedented tempo of U.S. challenges to mainland claims of sovereignty over the self-ruling island of Taiwan and its surrounding waters.
Since defeating their nationalist foes in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party-led central government has maintained itself to be the rightful administrator of Taiwan. In the seven decades since the rival Taipei government was established in Taiwan, an overwhelming majority of the global community—including the U.S. in 1979, in a move accompanied by Chinese economic reforms—has switched relations to Beijing, which prohibits diplomatic ties to the breakaway island.
Yet the U.S. provides military assistance to Taiwan in a move that continues to anger China. Under President Donald Trump, Washington has also sent senior diplomatic officials to the island, despite the absence of formal relations.
At a press conference Thursday in Beijing, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Senior Colonel Tan Kefei railed against “external forces” prodding China in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, where he and other officials have also vowed to defend Chinese territorial claims.
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In addition to criticizing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Tan also denounced the growing U.S.-India relationship amid the ongoing border dispute between Beijing and New Delhi.
He also hit out at the release earlier this month of a U.S. Naval Institute report that asserted that the “People’s Republic of China represents the most pressing, long-term strategic threat” to U.S. maritime security.
“To the person with the hammer in his hand, everything looks like a nail,” Tan said. “Some people in the United States cling to the outdated Cold War mentality and the narrow concept of zero-sum game, hypothesizing other countries as a threat, disregarding international justice and axioms, frequently inciting disputes and conflicts, and impacting the international system and international order.”
As People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison warships docked at the special administrative region’s recently handed-over Central Military Terminal for the first time, a move potentially signaling a greater Chinese military role in Hong Kong, the State Department issued a statement Thursday targeting the recent jailing of a dozen activists there who attempted to flee to Taiwan.
“A regime that prevents its own people from leaving can lay no claim to greatness or global leadership,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. “It is simply a fragile dictatorship, afraid of its own people.”
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The Trump administration adopted an especially tough line on China, accusing the People’s Republic of trade abuses, human rights violations and geopolitical aggressions. With President-elect Joe Biden set to take office on January 20 in spite of Trump’s protests, however, some Chinese officials have expressed hope for an improvement in U.S.-China relations.
Tan told reporters Thursday he hoped for a more productive relationship between Washington and Beijing moving forward, moving away from “the twists and turns” of 2020 toward the U.S. seeking to “effectively reduce hostility and provocation against China, meet China halfway, and continue to strengthen cooperation in such areas as strategic communication, institutional dialogue, conflict prevention, and crisis management and to jointly promote the stable development of relations between the two militaries.”
Others were less optimistic.
The South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a Chinese think tank composed of international experts monitoring the region, recently told Newsweek that the threat of war remained all too real, and may even be rising.
“We still believe that the risk of conflict is rising,” the SCSPI team said. “Though less mentioned in media reports recently, there have always been several encounters of various kinds from two sides every single day. If the U.S. and China couldn’t find substantive crisis management measures, the risk of an accident or unexpected conflict would still be high.”
The institute also recommended an offramp for tensions, but was skeptical as to whether Washington would take it given the circumstances of their growing international feud.
“The U.S. needs: 1) to refrain from ‘taking sides’ on disputed issues and maintain necessary policy balance; 2) to avoid extreme moves on the front line,” the SCSPI said.
But they were not hopeful.
“However, under the backdrop of the great power competition,” the SCSPI said, “both mentioned above are hard to be seen.”