Chinese Military Bullies Taiwan in Response to Coronavirus Criticism

An F-16 fighter aircraft releases flares during the Han Kuang drill at the Ching Chuan Kang (CCK) air force base in Taichung, central Taiwan, on June 7, 2018. - Taiwan on June 7 staged its largest annual drills simulating Chinese attacks as Beijing stepped up military and diplomatic pressure on …
SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China conducted naval and air drills near Taiwan on Monday in an intimidation operation against Taiwanese “secessionists.”

The bullying came after Taiwan outspokenly criticized China’s handling of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak and pressed for participation in the World Health Organization (WHO) over Chinese objections.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen last week slammed China for mismanaging the evacuation of Taiwanese citizens from the Wuhan outbreak area, demanded control over how Taiwanese passengers are prioritized in future evacuation flights, and stressed the importance of allowing Taiwan back into WHO. China opposes membership or even observer status for Taiwan because it does not want international organizations to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation-state.

“We in Taiwan are on the front line of epidemic prevention and deserve the respect of the international community. In particular, our participation in the WHO is the key to a very important network for international epidemic prevention work,” Tsai said on Friday.

Taiwanese passengers on the first evacuation flight home from Wuhan were outraged to learn an infected person slipped past haphazard Chinese testing and flew to Taiwan with them.

“They didn’t do any blood tests before we got on the plane, just a body temperature check. They let anyone on the plane whose temperature wasn’t raised, and there was no protective clothing or isolated seats. We didn’t find out until we got to Taiwan that there was a confirmed coronavirus patient on the plane. I’m really angry: how could they have behaved like that?” one of the Taiwanese passengers said of the Chinese.

Taiwan grounded most air travel from China last week and mandated a 14-day quarantine for visitors arriving from Macau and Hong Kong. Taiwan has advised its citizens to avoid travel to those semi-autonomous cities unless absolutely necessary and advised caution when visiting Singapore or Thailand. Taiwan has reported 18 cases of Wuhan coronavirus infection to date.

China’s state-run Global Times reported Tuesday on China’s latest military maneuvers near Taiwan, which were described as an effort to intimidate “separatists”:

For two consecutive days, concentrated military operations surrounding Taiwan have demonstrated PLA’s capabilities to solve the Taiwan question by force amid Taiwan secessionist plans, experts said.

Naval and air forces with the PLA Eastern Theater Command on Monday conducted joint drills in the southeastern waters of the island of Taiwan, said Senior Colonel Zhang Chunhui, a PLA Eastern Theater Command spokesperson, in a statement released by the Ministry of National Defense on Monday.

Citing Taiwan’s defense authority, Taiwan news website udn.com reported on Monday that PLA aircraft including H-6 bombers and fighter jets crossed the Bashi Channel on Monday morning flying into the western Pacific, and returned on the same course.

The joint drills on Monday came only one day after PLA forces conducted a combat readiness drill on Sunday with warships, bombers, jet fighters, and early warning aircraft. The combat planes cruised through the Bashi Channel and Miyako Strait and conducted real combat-oriented training.

Unlike Sunday’s operation, PLA fighter jets crossed the “middle line” of the Taiwan Straits on Monday, udn.com said.

Song Zhongping, a mainland military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times on Monday the concentrated PLA drills are not only warnings to Taiwan secessionists, but also demonstrations of PLA capabilities to solve the Taiwan question by force.

The Global Times pushed the notion that Taiwanese “separatism” and “collusion with the United States” is getting markedly worse, obliging the PLA to flex its muscles and let Taipei know it could invade at any time. 

President Tsai’s recent re-election, a landslide victory over a more pro-China candidate fueled in part by the Hong Kong political crisis, certainly did not please Beijing. The coronavirus is weakening China’s grip on Taiwan and Hong Kong further by physically isolating the islands and portraying Chinese leadership in a negative light. 

Mounting international pressure will further irritate the Chinese Communist Party, particularly in matters such as Taiwanese participation in the World Health Organization. Beijing will never relent and allow Taiwan to join, or admit that it was wrong to block Taiwan for so long, while the rest of the world grows more perturbed with China’s political intransigence in the face of a massive health crisis. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu last week accused WHO of violating its own mission statement by bowing to Chinese demands and excluding Taiwan.

The open question is if Chinese paranoia about Taiwanese “secessionists” will be heated up to the boiling point by the coronavirus epidemic, or whether China will feel obliged to demonstrate its power and alleviate its embarrassment by doing something provocative with respect to Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

China may also conclude that the coronavirus has spoiled any chance of political victory for pro-Beijing forces in Taiwanese politics for a long time to come, which might lead it to act aggressively because chances of peaceable “reunification” on Chinese terms have evaporated. The political fallout from the epidemic will likely outlive the virus itself.

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