Chinese President Xi Jinping has reiterated calls for Taiwan to be returned to the mainland amid orders for China’s Armed Forces to be “battle ready” as 2019 shapes to pick up right where 2018 left off.
In a sign of the shifting balance of power in Indo-Pacific Asia, President Xi has echoed comments made by Chinese Rear Admiral Luo Yan to pursue the rising superpower's economic, political and strategic ambitions through force and coercion.
President Xi's comments come despite China's attempts over the past 20 years to reassure the Indo-Pacific region that its ascendancy would be peaceful. Buoyed by meteoric economic growth and an unrivalled cheque book, the ancient nation has decisively flexed its soft-power muscles through initiatives like the One-Belt, One-Road policy and the Asian Infrastructure Bank.
President Xi called for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to be placed on a state of battle-readiness, saying for its force to, "correctly understand major national security and development trends, strengthen their sense of urgency, crisis and battle, and firmly do the work of preparing for military conflict".
Expanding on these comments, President Xi turned his attention to Taiwan. The "wayward" province separated following the Chinese Civil War, which has served as a point of contention between China and the US in particular. President Xi said that while a peaceful reunification of the two states was preferable, he would not rule out the forceful reunification of Taiwan.
These actions have raised alarm bells for many regional nations, including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia, each a firm US ally, invested in the continuing stability and prosperity of the post-Second World War regional order.
"We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures," Mr Xi said, while also issuing a stern warning to potential adversaries who would intervene in any military reunification of Taiwan, stating those options could also be used against "intervention by external forces".
These comments come following a series of Chinese military drills around both Taiwan and demonstrating China's capacity to project significant force into the western Pacific and were reinforced by the PLA Daily in its New Year's Day editorial.
"We should be well prepared for all directions of military struggle and comprehensively improve troops’ combat response in emergencies … to ensure we can meet the challenge and win when there is a situation," the paper wrote.
The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) also conducted a series of air combat and power projection drills, which saw a group of China's upgraded H-6K bombers, Il-78 aerial tanker aircraft, Y-8 transport aircraft and Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft leave Guandong's Huiyang airbase for a patrol flight over the Bashi Channel, the waterway which separates Taiwan and the Philippines, prior to heading further into the western Pacific Ocean.
This drill appeared to reaffirm China's commitment to flaunting international convention and exert its growing strategic capabilities to influence regional neighbours and deter external interventions that pose a threat to China's growing regional interests.
Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute told Defence Connect, "2018 was an interesting year in the South China Sea (SCS). It started fairly early on with the basing of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) on reclaimed islands in the SCS, the basing of the upgraded, H-6K nuclear capable bomber on Woody Island and more recently the USS Decatur (DDG-73) incident really reinforces that China is not backing down from its territorial ambitions."
Responding to the growing threat to Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan urged domestic and international support for the nation's de-facto independence, saying, "We hope the international community will pay attention and combine efforts to speak out on our behalf."
This statement comes amid plans by Taiwan to purchase up to 66 Lockheed Martin F-16V 'Viper' aircraft from the US to enhance the nation's air defence and interceptor capabilities. This followed the recent commissioning of two former US Navy, Oliver Hazard Perry Class guided missile frigates, similar to Australia's Adelaide Class vessels; the first Tuo-Chiang Class, advanced, high-speed, stealth corvette and locally developed Hsiung Feng-3 anti-ship missile.
For Australia, the growing need for the nation to initiate renewed engagement with the western Pacific area of responsibility is now paramount to ensure the nation's economic, political and strategic interests are heard and accounted for.
The US has responded to China, in the form of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act 2018, which authorised US$1.5 billion to counter China's growing strategic influence and will establish a multi-pronged strategy to advance US security and economic interests throughout Indo-Pacific Asia, working in conjunction with key regional allies including Australia, Japan and South Korea.
Despite this, it is clear that Australia's strategic priorities, doctrines and engagement with Indo-Pacific Asia in 2019 will become increasingly unpredictable in the face of renewed assertiveness and Chinese commitment to the forcible pursuit of its economic, political and strategic objectives.