Dozens of Chinese military flights through parts of Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the past month have caused an unwarranted panic that hawks in the U.S. have stoked and exploited for their own purposes.
Media hysteria and misinformation about these events have served to ratchet up tensions unnecessarily and to create an impression with the public that China is behaving far more aggressively than it is. The eagerness with which some national security analysts and reporters have mischaracterized what these flights represent has been alarming, because it shows how quickly any Chinese actions can be used to create a crisis atmosphere when there is no reason for it.
As U.S.-Chinese tensions increase due to mutual suspicion and distrust, these false alarms will likely become more frequent and potentially much more dangerous. If the United States is to keep these tensions from spiraling out of control, it should not take any provocative actions that could trigger a real crisis.
Contrary tomanysensationalistreports and social mediaposts, Chinese forces have not violated Taiwanese airspace, nor have they flown “over” Taiwan. In fact, these Chinese flights have mostly taken place in one corner in the southwest of Taiwan’s ADIZ hundreds of miles from the island, and they have all been operating in international airspace. Whether through sloppiness or a desire for clicks, media outlets and analysts that should know better have effectively misled their audiences into thinking that China has been routinely committing acts of aggression against Taiwan when it has not done that. Kevin Baron, the executive editor of Defense One magazine, claimed that the flights had gone “over” Taiwan, compared the flights to Russian military intervention in Ukraine, and then suggested that the Chinese government was “testing” the United States and preparing to do something similar here.
An ADIZ is defined as an area well beyond a country’s airspace, and that airspace extends only 12 miles out from the coasts. Several countries, including the United States and China. have established ADIZs to provide them with advance warning of approaching aircraft, and other governments send their own planes into these zones without notifying the other side on a semi-regular basis. The U.S. has repeatedlysent bombers through the ADIZ that China established over the East China Sea in 2013, and Russia sometimes sends its planes into the American ADIZ around Alaska. Part of Taiwan’s ADIZ even overlaps with a portion of the Chinese mainland itself. As Michael Swaine observed earlier this week, the unprecedented number of flights is genuine cause for concern, but it is not cause for the alarmist reaction that we have seen.
So why is China sending so many planes through part of Taiwan’s ADIZ? As Bonnie Glaser toldThe Guardian this week, “The Chinese are using these flights increasingly for training purposes and this is actually the end of the typical annual training cycle. The other purposes they serve is to signal to the United States and Taiwan not to cross Chinese red lines. And to stress Taiwan’s air force, to force them to scramble, to stress the aircraft, the pilots, force them to do more maintenance and test the responses of Taiwan’s air defence system.”
These flights are annoying, and they do place some strain on Taiwan’s air force, but we should not exaggerate the danger they pose to the island. The worst thing that Washington could do is to overreact and take its own provocative actions in response.
Threat inflation is a given in U.S. foreign policy debates, but it has been remarkable to see once again how easily media coverage can turn into full-blown fearmongering at the drop of a hat. Much of the coverage of this story in the last week has been very poor and inflammatory, and in some cases the commentary has been completely inappropriate. It is disturbing to think how a real crisis in the Taiwan Strait would be covered. It is worth asking whether our media outlets are even capable of responsibly reporting on such an important issue.
The Biden administration accurately criticized the flights for being provocative, but it has not blown them out of proportion. President Biden said earlier this week that he had spoken with Xi Jinping, and he stated that both had agreed to abide by what the president vaguely referred to as “the Taiwan agreement.” However, this affirmation of the status quo may no longer be enough to calm things down.
As Swaine noted: “Formulaic repetition by Washington of its continued adherence to the One China policy, and Beijing’s continued verbal support for a peaceful solution to the problem will not put a halt to this dangerous dynamic either.” The constant agitation in Washington for a more aggressively anti-Chinese posture in the region undermines Biden’s affirmations of the status quo. Recent arguments for giving Taiwan an explicit security guarantee have only contributed to the problem further.
Nothing could turn an imaginary crisis into a real one faster than an explicit U.S. pledge to defend Taiwan. Not only would this be an abrupt break with the status quo that has kept the peace for four decades, but a policy of “strategic clarity” would represent a direct challenge to China over a matter of vital importance that the Chinese government could not ignore. An American pledge to defend Taiwan would likely be tested early on, and it is doubtful that anyone in our government has fully thought through the implications of what such a commitment would require. The public is wholly unprepared for what a conflict over Taiwan would involve and what it might end up costing the United States.
Decades of waging war against much weaker states and terrorist groups have helped Americans forget how dangerous it is to court unnecessary conflict. As Daniel Davis recently pointed out, “the very best outcome we can hope for is a U.S. military that is left severely damaged, thousands of service members killed and wounded, and a massive security and financial burden of defending Taiwan indefinitely,” and that best-case scenario is not the most likely outcome. An explicit security guarantee to Taiwan would put the U.S. on a path for war with China sooner or later, and there is a good chance that this is a war that we would lose.
The United States can and should continue assisting Taiwan to prepare its own defense to discourage China from ever making an attempt to seize the island by force, but it should not make an explicit guarantee to go to war on Taiwan’s behalf. Making such a guarantee is more likely to trigger a crisis and a war than it is to prevent one. The best thing to be done under the circumstances is to seek to reduce tensions with China and to back away from the militarized rivalry with them that our government has been pursuing. Unfortunately, the irresponsible hawkish fearmongering over this week’s events threatens to move the U.S. in the opposite direction.
Daniel Larison is a regular columnist at Responsible Statecraft, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and a former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. He writes regularly for his newsletter, Eunomia, on Substack.
A Chinese H-6K bomber (file photo) reportedly flown into Taiwan air defense space in recent days. (Govt. of Japan/Creative Commons)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.