On China's National Day, Oct. 1, 25 Chinese fighter jets, bombers, and other airplanes flew in intimidating formations off the southern end of Taiwan, displaying military power. In the hundreds, the intrusions continued through the night and into the following days, reaching new highs on Monday when 56 airplanes tested Taiwan's depleted air defenses.
Taiwanese fighter jets hurried to keep up, while the US warned China that its "provocative military activity" was jeopardizing "regional peace and stability." China was unfazed. When a Taiwanese combat air traffic controller radioed one Chinese aircraft, the pilot responded with an obscenity about the officer's mother, dismissing the challenge.
As these clashes escalate, the power balance around Taiwan is fundamentally altering, ushering a decades-long deadlock over the island's destiny into a deadly new phase.
Taiwan, which has resisted China's communist rulers' aspirations for the unification for more than 70 years, is now at the center of a developing schism between China and the United States. The outcome of the island's fate can influence regional order and perhaps spark a military conflict - whether intentionally or unintentionally.
"On the wiring in the relationship, there's very little insulation left," Danny Russel, a former assistant secretary of state, said, "and it's not hard to imagine getting some crossed wires and that starting a fire."
For the first time, China's military might have made a conquest of Taiwan plausible, if not desirable. The US wants to prevent any invasion, but its military power in Asia has been rapidly eroding. Taiwan's military readiness has dwindled, despite its people's growing opposition to unification.
All three have attempted to demonstrate resolve in the hopes of avoiding war, only to be met with countermoves that exacerbate distrust and increase the possibility of mistake.
In October 2020, American intelligence reports detailed how Chinese leaders were concerned that President Trump was planning an attack at an agitating period. These concerns, which could have been misinterpreted, prompted Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley to telephone his counterpart in Beijing to reassure him.
"The Taiwan issue has ceased to be a sort of niche issue, and it's become a central theater — if not the central drama — in US-China strategic competition," said Evan Medeiros, a former member of President Obama's National Security Council.
Xi Jinping, China's ambitious leader, now commands what is likely the country's most powerful military in history. Some suggest that Mr. Xi, who has prepared the ground for a third term beginning in 2022, may feel obligated to capture Taiwan to mark the end of his reign.
Taiwan independence "was a grave lurking threat to national rejuvenation," Mr. Xi said Saturday in Beijing. "Nobody should underestimate the staunch determination, firm will, and powerful ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said, adding that China supported peaceful unification.
Few believe war is imminent or predetermined, partly because China's economic and political ramifications would be enormous. Even if the recent flights into Taiwan's self-declared air identification zone are only a kind of political pressure rather than a precursor to conflict, China's financial, political, and military dominance has made maintaining the island's security a problematic task.