The US Factor in the China-Taiwan Imbroglio

Geographically, the island of Taiwan is separated from the Chinese mainland by the Strait of Taiwan. Politically, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers the Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan a “renegade province” and aims for its unification with the mainland by pursuing the One China Policy. This has resulted in serious tensions between the PRC and the ROC, which could have implications for other states. Reiterating the One China Policy, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the 1992 Consensus, according to which the two sides of the Strait of Taiwan belong to PRC, and stated that national reunification is a work in progress. Taiwan is also forbidden from participating in the United Nations forums and institutions or in any other international organization. However, it holds member status in a few regional organizations like Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, WTO, and so on.

In terms of the recent conflict between China and Taiwan, the role of the U.S. is indirectly but effectively influencing the strife between the countries. Being a democratic and technologically advanced powerhouse, Taiwan has been a key partner of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific. Both countries value their strong commercial links and their devotion to democratic ideals. Hence, the United States holds a unique relationship with Taiwan. On the one hand, the US “acknowledges” the One China Policy that clearly states that “there is but One China and Taiwan is a part of it”. However, the word “acknowledge” does not imply that the U.S. accepts China’s position regarding the matter. On the other hand, the U.S. maintains steady cultural and economic ties with Taiwan. Under the Six Assurances by Ronald Reagan in 1982, the U.S. “rejects any use of force to settle the dispute” and, most importantly, supplies arms and ammunition to Taiwan for self-defence. 

On Aug. 2, coinciding with the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, drawing unprecedented reactions and consequences. As a direct response to the visit, the PRC increased its military mobilization across the meridian line dividing mainland and Taiwan. Simultaneous drills have been carried out in around six locations, the closest being less than 12 nautical miles from Taiwan’s coast. The PLA fired 11 Dongfeng ballistic missiles into the waters surrounding northern, southern, and Eastern Taiwan. Multiple rounds of firings were reported, some of which have allegedly disturbed Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. In the past few days, China has also been deploying “civilian drones” to spy on the Taiwanese military positioned at the “frontline offshore islands.” The response is in consonance with President Xi’s previous remarks in July on the Taiwan issue- “those who play with fire will perish by it.”

In response, the Taiwanese forces are shooting down drones in order to deter such activities. The fear that civilian drones could be militarized is palpable. Taiwan has said that the army would mobilize and retaliate stronger if a PRC vessel or a plane came within the 22km radius of its territory. The latter is therefore exercising a “grey zone tactic” similar to a cold war, where a country operates in the space between war and peace. In this case, a state’s actions do not amount to a conventional war; however, ensuring that there is no peace.

As a countermeasure, Taiwan is ramping up its military stockpile with aid from the U.S. The U.S. has conducted arms sales amounting to  $1.1 billion, including several advanced air-to-air missiles, surveillance equipment like radars, and so on. It is the biggest transfer of ammunition in almost two years. On Sept. 14, a Senate committee decided to directly provide billions of dollars in military aid to Taiwan. With this new policy in the act, Taiwan will be receiving “security assistance from the US of $4.5 billion over four years.” This step has flared up Chinese reactions and foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning stated: “it will greatly shake the political foundation of China-US relations, and will have extremely serious consequences for … peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”. The U.S. is in a complete win-win situation as it finally finds partners in its aim to politically deter China with its defence industry booming.

One has to look into the factors that ushered aggressive developments in the region in a short span of time. First, China’s eye on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not bring out the intended results, the reason why it has been still dragging out. Vladimir Putin is facing the trouble of Russia’s poorly performing military along with an economic crisis that is deeply affecting the Russian population. The military costs of war have reached an unprecedented level with the economic sanctions on Russia kicking in. Xi must similarly wonder about the impact on his economy which has already taken the brunt of subsequent Covid lockdowns and the harsh sanctions it might face if it goes about with his plan for invading Taiwan. The world had overestimated Russia’s military capabilities and suffering from poor logistics. It also has been noticed that the Western powers have been entirely inconsiderate and apathetic towards Russia’s claims. Russia puts forward a neorealist stand that justifies the buffer state theory. It always remained anxious about Ukraine’s intention to join NATO and losing its buffer state against any other rival. However, the West has always considered this attack as personal, stating that President Putin is paranoid and aims for reunification on the grounds of national identity. Similarly, the One China Policy is being viewed as a step towards establishing Chinese greatness and establishing an immortal legacy. Another factor is that Taiwan is neither a buffer state nor an ally to China. On the other hand, if Taiwan successfully establishes an independent foreign policy that would command crucial maritime trade routes around itself and China, it could pose as a huge threat to the latter. China must note that it was the direct attack by Russia and the use of brute force that pushed countries towards NATO and isolated Russia.

China also needs to note that Taiwan is building its stockpile from the same ammunition that U.S. provides to Ukraine, and Chinese aggression has led to closer security integration with U.S.-led security alliances. Taiwan’s Vice President, William Lai also asked the US to allow Taiwan to join the QUAD and Taiwanese leaders have often used international platforms to draw parallels between the Ukraine conflict and Taiwan’s existential crisis.

This new rocky path concerning the three countries can only be solved through special tactics that would project more of a pragmatic outlook rather than direct responses through visits and threats. It is high time that the US realizes that its consistent rebuttal to every threat or provocation put forward by China will only increase the chances of an impending direct war. While passivity is not recommended, a delicate balance of power is the need of the hour. Some practical tactics like those used by President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 can be deployed, which ultimately led to an aversion of nuclear warfare. Thus, both sides should dial down their tones, not violate their national interests, and not use Taiwan as bait to contest each other.

[Image credit: Garoth Ursuul, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Labonya Chaudhuri is a Master’s student in International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University, Pondicherry. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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