Taiwan has been excluded from the US-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) in what analysts see as a sign that Washington is treading carefully to avoid crossing Beijing’s red line on the self-ruled island.
The two-week RIMPAC – the world’s largest international maritime drill held by the US every second year – kicked off on Monday in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Led by the US Navy, it brings together naval forces primarily from the Pacific Rim – this year South Korea, Canada, Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, New Zealand, Brunei and France – to promote regional stability and cooperation. More than half the 25 countries that took part in the last RIMPAC drill are not participating this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
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Taiwan had been hoping to join the war games, hoping stronger ties with the US would help it to get an invitation to participate as an observer, but it was not forthcoming. Military spokesman Shih Shun-wen confirmed on Monday that the island’s defence ministry had not received an invitation to take part, however he stressed that the “cooperation between Taiwan and the US will benefit regional stability”.
Late last month Shih said Taiwan wanted to take part. “We are interested in participating in RIMPAC as an observer as it would enable us to learn from the cooperative training and humanitarian assistance operations,” he said.
Washington’s decision not to grant Taiwan observer status comes as relations have deteriorated across the Taiwan Strait, and as Beijing, Washington and Taipei seek to calm the tensions. Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of mainland territory, and has not ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control.
In Taiwan, Beijing-friendly newspaper China Times on Monday reported that the island’s air force had renewed an order for its pilots to avoid “misfiring” when they were dispatched to repel fighter jets from the mainland and other aircraft “intruding” into Taiwan’s airspace.
“Only experienced pilots will be sent to take the lead in any operations monitoring the [intruding] warplanes, to avoid misfiring,” the report said, quoting Taiwanese military sources.
“In order to strictly avoid accidents that may trigger military incidents, pilots have been instructed that they cannot fire the first shot without a direct order from the air force command,” the report said. “Any pilots who violate the order will face legal action [from the military].”
A spokesman for Taiwan’s defence ministry declined to comment on the report.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the renewed order indicated that Taiwan did not want to bear responsibility for “initiating” conflict with the mainland.
“The Taiwanese military does not want to fire the first shot, and the US will not allow them to do that because it would not be in Washington’s best interest,” Song said.
“The US prefers to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait: no unification, no independence, and no use of force,” he added.
The South China Morning Post also reported last week that the People’s Liberation Army had told its service personnel “not to fire the first shot” as Beijing looked to de-escalate tensions with the US in the South China Sea. Both China and the US have stepped up their operations in the disputed waters in recent months, increasing the risk of incidents that could spiral out of control.
Taiwan’s military had high hopes of taking part in RIMPAC when the US Senate passed its version of the 2021 National Defence Authorisation Act last month. It calls for the US to invite Taiwan to take part in the exercise and to keep China from achieving “a fait accompli” occupation in Taiwan.
It appeared even more likely it could join the drill when the US sent Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to Taiwan for a high-profile four-day visit last week.
Azar was the highest-ranked US official to visit the island since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei in 1979, and President Tsai Ing-wen said it showed relations were the best they had been.
Lin Yu-fang, who heads the national security department of the National Policy Foundation, a pro-opposition Kuomintang think tank, said despite the warming of US-Taiwan relations, it was understandable the US would not invite Taiwan to take part in the drill.
“RIMPAC is an important international drill and those who take part in it are the critical allies of the US, with which they have signed military and security treaties,” said Lin, a former legislator who chaired the parliament’s defence and foreign affairs committee.
He said while US-Taiwan relations were at a high point, Washington would draw the line.
“Yes, they have sent their health secretary over to Taiwan, but all this is the result of the intensifying row between the US and mainland China, and we shouldn’t expect that the US will do anything to plump for Taiwan,” Lin said.
“[US President Donald] Trump has set a red line on this and won’t allow others in his administration to cross it as it would bring disaster to US-China relations, and mainland China would be certain to retaliate,” he said, adding that Trump was aware that a full-blown conflict with Beijing would not be in US interests.
Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University in eastern China, said excluding Taiwan from RIMPAC reflected a “sensitivity” from the Pentagon to avoid potential military conflict.
“China-US relations are already in a difficult situation and neither side wants the tension to get out of control in the western Pacific,” Zhu said. “Major powers can compete strategically, but they still want to manage risks to prevent the possibility of military conflict.”
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the issue of Taiwan joining RIMPAC was one of Washington’s bargaining chips in dealing with Beijing.
“The US may still invite Taiwan [next time] if they want to play the Taiwan card,” he said.
More from South China Morning Post:
- China unveils two-seater design for stealth plane based on J-20 fighter
- PLA drills point to stepped-up plans to take control of Taiwan, analysts say
- Taiwan unveils record defence budget as Beijing stands firm on claim to island
- US-China relations: Azar’s visit to Taiwan was designed to not upset Beijing, observers say
This article Taiwan excluded from RIMPAC war games as US avoids crossing Beijing’s red line first appeared on South China Morning Post