Rudd says China using ‘gray zone’ tactics against Taiwan

The Australian diplomat said Beijing wants Taipei to capitulate to a ‘One Country, Two Systems' deal.
By Alex Willemyns for RFA
Rudd says China using ‘gray zone’ tactics against Taiwan Ambassador of Australia to the U.S. Kevin Rudd attends the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 17, 2024.
Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Taiwan and the United States must counter China’s growing use of “gray zone” tactics meant to force the island to give-in to a takeover, Australia’s ambassador to Washington, Kevin Rudd, said Thursday.

Speaking at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii, Rudd called the current era “the decade of living dangerously” and said Chinese President Xi Jinping was tiring of what he saw as Taiwan’s incrementally “growing autonomy.”

In reaction to the Taiwanese government’s claims the democratic island is already independent from China, he said, there is dwindling support in Beijing for the U.S.-backed “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait and a renewed urgency about resolving “the Taiwan problem.” 

“Beijing is signaling loud and clear that its political objective remains to force Taiwan into negotiations on its preferred ‘One Country, Two Systems’ formula,” Rudd said, referring to the split system that was applied in Hong Kong after the British handover in July 1997.

But with little appetite among Taiwan’s people for unification, according to opinion polls, Beijing is employing “gray zone” tactics aimed at chipping away at the public’s willingness to resist, he said.

‘Gray zone’ tactics

Rudd described China’s “gray zone” tactics as hyper-aggressive statecraft that is “short of war” and therefore difficult to respond to, and said they have included military intrusions on Taiwan’s outlying maritime territory to “incrementally” assert its sovereignty claims.

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A Taiwanese sailor aboard a Taiwan Navy vessel looks towards a Chinese warship while navigating on waters off Taiwan's western coast, in this handout image released May 23, 2024. (Taiwan Defence Ministry/Handout via Reuters)

Coupled with threats of a blockade of the island, he said, the tactics aim to “demonstrate that the Taiwanese administration, in the eyes of its people, is increasingly incapable of sustaining and managing Taiwan's claim to sovereignty” and that giving up may be easier.

To avoid Taiwan’s capitulation amid intensifying “gray zone” bullying, Rudd said, Taiwan and the United States must develop “calibrated policy responses,” instead of continuing to offer “no responses at all, which presumably is Beijing's current expectation.”

Even then, he said, Beijing may resort to force, with the 70-year-old Xi likely mulling his “personal and political mortality” and seeking control of Taiwan “before he finds himself in his 80s.” 

Any war over Taiwan, he added, could be as globally transformative as World War II and lead to “unknowable geostrategic consequences.”

A two-time former prime minister of Australia and a fluent Mandarin speaker who was appointed ambassador last year, Rudd told the audience that he was speaking “in my capacity as a China scholar, and not as an official representative of the Australian Government.”

Arms sale

Rudd’s speech came as Washington and Beijing sparred over U.S. military support for Taiwan amid China’s recent maritime intrusions.

The U.S. State Department on Thursday approved the sale to Taiwan of US$80 million in spare parts for American-made F-16 fighter jets, according to a press release from the Pentagon, which said it was meant to help Taiwan “maintain a credible defensive capability.”

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A phone and watch that received an air raid alert is placed together for a photo in New Taipei City, Taiwan Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

The Pentagon said the sale “will not alter the basic military balance in the region” but will “improve the security of the recipient and assist in maintaining political stability [and] military balance.”

At a daily press briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said it was clear Taiwan’s government was seeking formal independence and added that “the U.S. is hellbent on helping advance that agenda by arming Taiwan.”

Mao said Washington should “stop selling arms to Taiwan and having military contact with Taiwan, stop creating factors that fuel tensions in the Taiwan Strait, stop endangering cross-strait peace and stability and stop going further down this wrong and dangerous path.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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