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Foreign Policy

Managing Taiwan Provocations

Oct 23 , 2018
  • Chen Pingping

    Deputy director of the Research Center for Maritime Economy

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American Institute in Taiwan Opening Ceremony (Picture Credit: American Institute in Taiwan)

According to multiple American media reports, the US Navy is planning to dispatch its 7th Fleet to conduct a series of military drills at the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea in the name of "freedom of navigation" in a show of force to "warn China and demonstrate that the US is capable of confronting their military actions". As the US takes China as a strategic competitor, China-US trade disputes intensify and Taiwan prepares for local elections, such a message from the US military will undoubtedly have a negative impact on China-US relations and stability in the Taiwan Straits, and the probability of a new crisis over Taiwan has suddenly increased dramatically.

What’s behind the US' pro-Taiwan stunts?

Since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency, the US has gradually adjusted its Taiwan policy. While stating its commitment to the "one China" policy, it has paid greater attention to relations with Taiwan, intending to increase Taiwan's value as a pawn in containing the rise of Beijing. First, the first "National Security Strategy" of the Trump administration not only defines China as a "major strategic competitor", but also incorporates Taiwan into its "Indo-Pacific strategy", showing an obvious intention to woo Taiwan and confront China. Second, it has passed multiple Taiwan-related laws, paving the way for expanding official and military exchanges with Taiwan. Third, in disregard of the mainland's strong opposition, it approved a $330 million arms sales package for Taiwan, increasing factors of instability across the Taiwan Straits. Besides, it blamed the mainland for El Salvatore and two other Central American nations' switch of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, accusing the latter of "sabotaging the status quo", recalled ambassadors to the three countries, and threatened to take "retaliatory" actions. Such pro-Taiwan moves indicate the US' strategic purpose to contain China's development.

Local elections in Taiwan see deterioration in cross-Straits relations

Taiwan is to hold local elections at the end of November, for which various factions are competing fiercely. The elections are considered the "wind vane" for the island's 2020 presidential election; they may also determine whether the Kuomintang can win back voter confidence. From the US perspective, it will be more conducive to its control over Taiwan and ensuring the latter cooperates with it in containing China if the Democratic Progressive Party continues to rule Taiwan. That way the US can continue profiting from the cross-Straits standoff. Therefore, at such a sensitive juncture, the US releases conducts military exercises near the Taiwan Straits and in the South China Sea. Once that is put into practice, it will on one hand honor US security commitments to its allies and Taiwan, while carrying out "freedom of navigation" operations; on the other hand, it can show its muscles to the mainland, demonstrating its capability to contain the latter. If the US conducts drills in the Taiwan Straits, the mainland will inevitably respond and based on its core interest in preserving its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and tensions may be inevitable between the two sides of the Straits. The DPP will, like it did before, take advantage of such tensions and spread fears of a "mainland threat" and manipulate public opinion so as to win the elections.                                                                     

Trump’s Taiwan rhetoric may be just lip service

US Taiwan policy serves its China policy. There have been times when "pro-Taiwan" US policies ended up being just empty talk. On the campaign trail, Ronald Regan had criticized the Carter administration for cutting ties with Taiwan, and promised to support restoring "official relations" with Taiwan, even invited a Taiwan delegation to his inauguration. After assuming office, however, based on US national interests, Regan not only didn't rebuild "official relations" with Taiwan, but even signed the September 18 Communiqué that restricted arms sales to Taiwan. Although the Trump administration has passed a series of Taiwan-related acts, most of them were "Congress opinions" that are essentially not legally binding, and so far there is no sign they will be implemented. On the contrary, soon after getting elected, Trump questioned what the US could get from protecting Taiwan. The various so-called "pro-Taiwan" US policies, therefore, are just tools for its China policies. Under present circumstances, though the US has a stronger intention to contain China with Taiwan, it is increasingly incapable of doing it as China's might grows. Taiwan as a pawn will inevitably lose autonomy and say in China-US competition."

Stay poised and consolidate control over the Taiwan issue

"The tree may crave calm, but the wind will not subside." Facing the reality that China-US relations are turning from trade disputes to comprehensive strategic competition and deteriorating relations across the Taiwan Straits, China must show composure and maintain a cool head. On one hand, the US strategy of taking China as a "major strategic competitor" and using Taiwan to contain China's development will not change, and the US will continue to "support" Taiwan in various manners, challenge the One China principle, and pursue its own strategic interests. On the other hand, the DPP in Taiwan will not change its independence-oriented policies, will continue to engage in activities targeted at splitting Taiwan from China, and strive to sustain its rule. Therefore, in the face of changes in US Taiwan policy and "pro-Taiwan" provocations, or changes in Taiwan authorities' mainland policies and independence-oriented moves, the mainland should adhere to the following principles. First, hold fast to the "1992 consensus" as a bottom line that embodies the One China principle, a cornerstone of peace and development across the Straits. In the face of any actions in violation of the One China principle and any separatist provocations, China should secure the bottom line, clarify its position, and fight back in a timely manner. Second, make sure all policies tailored for Taiwan are implemented well, and promote integrated economic and social development across the Straits. Third, raise the country's comprehensive strength, increase the mainland's appeal to Taiwan, upgrade its own capabilities for controlling the situation in the Straits. And last, closely monitor the US' Taiwan-related actions and the Taiwan authorities' separatist activities, make informed judgments, and prepare contingency plans as early as possible.

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