Taiwan Remains The Flashpoint In The US-China Relationship

Taiwan Remains The Flashpoint In The US-China Relationship
After a decade of deteriorating US-China relations, and rising tensions in areas from trade to technology, spying and sanctions, the recent flashpoint is Taiwan, where the US and China have managed to avoid disaster for 70 years. With Taiwan’s resolute defiance in the wake of China’s dream of unification of a greater Chinese nation, and the shifting of US position from being a neutral arbiter to countering the threat China poses to Taiwan, conflict seems imminent.

China’s formula of political reconciliation through the “one country, two systems” policy, in which China rules over Taiwan, but allows Taipei room to govern itself economically and administratively is bitterly resented by the Taiwanese public and opposed by its democratic government.

Any effort by Taiwan to gear up a political or diplomatic engagement with US, independent of Beijing’s approval, has always stirred formidable unrest and backlash. For example, the infamous 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis was an outcome of Taiwan’s President Lee’s visit to Cornell University in reversal of the Chinese foreign policy. The recent visit of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to California in April 2023, and that of Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House to Taiwan in August 2022, driven by consolidating support for freedom and democracy, were viewed as a threat to its political ideology, and Beijing retaliated severely militarily by simulating war games around Taiwan, showing to the world in general, and particularly the US that it will defend its territorial sovereignty at all cost.

There are potential signs for the US to notice in Beijing’s attempt to flex its military muscles in front of Taiwan and around the world. The rationale for the US to defend Taiwan historically was manifest in the mutual defense treaty of 1954, and after its abdication, the signing of Taiwan Relations Act 1979 to “maintain the capacity to resist use of force or coercion against Taiwan” and provide “arms of defensive character.” Washington also has strong strategic and economic interests to stand with Taiwan. Taiwan sits at core of global value chains, especially in the critical semiconductor business. For decades, the US has worked to keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait by blocking two actions that could lead to outright conflict; a declaration of independence by Taipei, and forced unification by Beijing. At times, it has publicly opposed sentiments of Taipei and other times it has flexed its military muscle in front of Beijing as it did in the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis when Bill Clinton sent an aircraft carrier to the waters off Taiwan in response to a Chinese missile test. There have been instances of assurance under the Taiwan Relations Act 1979 to “preserve and promote extensive close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations” with Taiwan. To Beijing, the US has reiterated that it does not support Taiwan’s independence, including in its 2022 National Security Strategy. So the overall aim was to postpone the conflict and reach some sort of political resolution.

For years, this approach worked well. There were three reasons. First, the US maintained a supremacy in military power over China which discouraged China from the use of force. Second, China was focused on its own economic development and integration into the world economy, following a policy of peaceful coexistence. Third, the US played the role as arbiter, committed to preserving the status quo and dealt dexterously with challenges to maintain cross strait stability, thereby cooling down chances of conflict.

The past decade has seen a reversal of all three factors dramatically. The most obvious change is the phenomenal rise of the military power of Beijing owing to increased investments, narrowing significantly the difference between the two militaries. Beijing can now target airspace and waters around Taiwan, hit US aircraft in the region, and threaten military bases in the Pacific. Coupled with sound technological and economic development to outwit the US, Beijing, in pursuit of great power ambitions, does not seem to put Taiwan on the back burner anymore.

Beijing now views the balance of power on its own side, as analysts rightly say so. There is a growing impression in Beijing that US has abandoned the One China policy and uses Taiwan as a tool to weaken and divide China. Taiwan on the other hand, is acutely skeptical that China is on a course to invade it like Russia. They say “Ukraine Today, Taiwan tomorrow.” The increased fear of Chinese aggression is amplified by its growing military might, and when it abrogated the autonomy of Hong Kong with a hardline national security law. These fears seem justified, particularly when Beijing has openly threatened to use military force if the doors of peaceful unification to Taiwan are closed.

There is a heightened worry among US defense analysts, driven by China’s growing military might. Reflecting this shift, the US President has repeatedly said that the US would militarily intervene on behalf of Taiwan in the conflict, and to prove it, Biden sent missiles into Taiwan’s waters to counter the Chinese threat in retaliation of Tai’s visit to California this year.

Without taking sides and inflaming the scenario, the fundamental objective of American efforts must be to maintain the status quo, convince both leaders to avoid confrontation and use wise statecraft, more than military strength, to preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, deterring the eruption of what could be a flashpoint for deteriorating US-China relations and possibly, great power war.

The writer has an LLM in International Economic Law