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International relations

Will Taiwan Strait tensions lead to conflict? Five things to know

Chinese aircraft are buzzing island with increasing frequency

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin conducts a routine Taiwan Strait transit on Aug. 18. Mustin is forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

TAIPEI -- During a high-profile visit to Taiwan by a U.S. official last week, 18 Chinese aircraft buzzed the self-ruling island claimed by China. Taiwan scrambled fighter jets in response and labeled China's infringement a "serious provocation" and a "threat to regional stability."

Beijing has accused Washington and Taipei of "collusion," saying the military action was necessary for "protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity." China has long claimed Taiwan as part of its "sacred" sovereign territory to be unified with the Chinese mainland, by force if necessary.

Saber-rattling has become increasingly commonplace in recent years across the diplomatically tense Taiwan Strait, a waterway that has been the center of three military crises -- the latest in 1995 and 1996, when Chinese missile tests led to the U.S. sending aircraft carrier groups to the region.

Here are five things to know about the escalating tensions:

What is the latest situation?

Chinese military aircraft have entered Taiwan's air defense identification zone six times in the past seven days, with some crossing the sensitive midline of the Taiwan Strait -- an unofficial buffer zone between China and Taiwan.

Relations between Taipei and Beijing have soured since Tsai Ing-wen first became president in 2016. While Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party supports formal Taiwan independence -- a red line for China -- she has expressed support for the status quo and argues that Taiwan, officially named the Republic of China, is already an independent nation. China has launched a campaign to squeeze Taiwan's international presence and force the island to accept its "one China" principle.

Why is China becoming more aggressive now?

Taiwan is expanding its global ties amid the U.S.-China trade, tech and security tensions and the growing global distrust of China. Top officials from both the U.S. and Europe have visited in the last month, angering Beijing.

China is also facing increased international pressure over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its passing of a national security law in Hong Kong.

Taiwan's foreign minister has said Beijing may be jostling with Taipei to distract its population from the country's economic slowdown. With the world preoccupied with battling the COVID-19 pandemic, some observers have suggested that China may believe now is the time to pressure Taiwan. The upcoming U.S. presidential election -- predicted to be tumultuous -- may also render Taiwan's most powerful backer unable to quickly intervene in the event of conflict.

A Chinese People's Liberation Army H-6 bomber flies near the Taiwan air defense identification zone on Sept. 18. (Taiwan Ministry of National Defense via AP)

What is at stake?

Taiwan is a thriving democracy home to nearly 24 million people, the vast majority of whom reject rule by China. It is considered one of the most liberal economies in Asia and regularly tops regional rankings on free speech.

It is also a key part of the global technology supply chain, from chip manufacturing to iPhone components. Any attack on the tech powerhouse would disrupt global electronics supply, especially as the island's tech giants make the majority of the world's most advanced chips.

If tensions become more fraught, the U.S. and its allies may intervene and spark a broader conflict. China could find itself facing a war on multiple fronts, along with sanctions and blockades, and this could ravage its economy and risk domestic unrest.

Can Taiwan defend itself?

Militarily, nuclear-armed China dwarfs Taiwan and has more than 10 times the budget and soldiers. Beijing recently added stealth fighters, aircraft carriers and advanced missiles to its arsenal.

Taiwan's modernized and well-trained military, however, stresses its competence in "asymmetric warfare." The military said this week its missiles are "sufficient for defensive needs."

Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is obliged to help provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself. It is reportedly negotiating with Taiwan a new $7 billion deal on seven major weapon systems, including sea mines, missiles and drones.

In Washington, there are calls for an end to the policy of "strategic ambiguity" on whether America would come to Taiwan's aid in the event of war. Some lawmakers are pushing for assurances that the U.S. would protect Taiwan from Chinese aggression.

How likely is conflict?

Most observers believe neither side wants a war. Indeed, China has emphasized its desire for peaceful "reunification" for decades, and the two sides have not exchanged fire since 1958.

But Taiwan and China have no official dialogue mechanism at present. Tsai has warned that any accident or miscommunication could quickly spiral out of control. James Stavridis, a former NATO supreme allied commander, wrote this week in the Nikkei Asian Review that any moves in Washington to formally recognize Taiwan would have an explosive effect on the U.S.-China relationship and could trigger a full-scale Chinese invasion of the island.

Some military analysts suggest that persistent flights by reconnaissance planes mean China is assessing Taiwan's defenses ahead of an attack. And Chinese state media have said the recent large-scale military maneuvers were a rehearsal for an invasion of the island.

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