The American military is warning that China is probably accelerating its timetable for capturing control of Taiwan, the island democracy that has been the chief source of tension between Washington and Beijing for decades and is widely seen as the most likely trigger for a potentially catastrophic US-China war.
The worry about Taiwan comes as China wields new strength from years of military buildup. It has become more aggressive with Taiwan and more assertive in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing also has become more confrontational with Washington; senior Chinese officials traded sharp and unusually public barbs with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in talks in Alaska last month.
A military move against Taiwan, however, would be a test of US support for the island that Beijing views as a breakaway province. For the Biden administration, it could present the choice of abandoning a friendly, democratic entity or risking what could become an all-out war over a cause that is not on the radar of most Americans.
The United States has long pledged to help Taiwan defend itself, but it has deliberately left unclear how far it would go in response to a Chinese attack.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday (local time) expressed "great concern" at what he called pattern of Chinese efforts to intimidate others in the region, including Taiwan.
"The United States maintains the capacity to resist any resort to force or any other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan," Price said.
This accumulation of concerns meshes with the Biden administration's view that China is a frontline challenge for the US and that more must be done soon — militarily, diplomatically and by other means — to deter Beijing as it seeks to supplant the United States as the predominant power in Asia.
The implications of a Chinese military move against Taiwan and its 23 million people are so profound and potentially grave that Beijing and Washington have long managed a fragile middle ground — Taiwanese political autonomy that precludes control by Beijing but stops short of formal independence. But China claims Taiwan as its own territory to be won over peacefully or by force.
Taiwan's foreign minister on Wednesday (local time) said the island will defend itself "to the very last day" if attacked by China. Joseph Wu said China's attempts at conciliation while engaging in military intimidation are sending "mixed signals" to the island's residents. Wu noted China flew 10 warplanes into Taiwan's air defence identification zone on Monday and deployed an aircraft carrier group for exercises near Taiwan.
"We are willing to defend ourselves, that's without any question," Wu told reporters. "We fill fight a war if we need to fight a war, and if we need to defend ourselves to the very last day, then we will defend ourselves to the very last day."
China does not recognise Taiwan's democratically elected government, and leader Xi Jinping has said "unification" between the sides cannot be put off indefinitely.
The naval drills being conducted in waters off Taiwan were meant to help China "safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests," the Chinese army said Monday, using language often interpreted as being directed at Taiwan's leadership that has refused to give in to Beijing's demands that it recognise the island as part of Chinese territory.
"On the one hand they want to charm the Taiwanese people by sending their condolences, but at the same time they are also sending their military aircraft and military vessels closer to Taiwan aimed at intimidating Taiwan's people," Wu said at a ministry briefing. "The Chinese are sending very mixed signals to the Taiwanese people and I would characterise that as self-defeating."
Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, and most Taiwanese favour maintaining the current state of de facto independence while engaging in robust economic exchanges with the mainland. China has created conditions for greater economic integration, while also targeting some communities such as pineapple farmers in hopes of weakening their support for the island's government.
Chinese diplomatic pressure has been growing also, reducing the number of Taiwan's formal diplomatic allies to just 15 and shutting its representatives out of the World Health Assembly and other major international forums.
Taiwan has responded by boosting its high-tech industries and unofficial foreign relations, particularly with its key partners the US, Japan and others, and by building up its own defence industries, including a submarine development programme, while buying upgraded warplanes, missiles and other military hardware from the US.
Meanwhile, the US Navy says the carrier Theodore Roosevelt and its strike group reentered the South China Sea on Saturday to "conduct routine operations". It is the second time the strike group has entered the waterway this year as part of its 2021 deployment to the US 7th Fleet area of operations.