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Risks Are Rising Over Taiwan

Apr 19, 2023
  • Zhao Minghao

    Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, and China Forum Expert.


Former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou was given a warm reception during his recent tour on the Chinese mainland. He reiterated the importance of the 1992 consensus and called for efforts to "strive for peace” and “revitalize China.” His 12-day trip brought a new sense of geniality to cross-Strait relations. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s current leader, Tsai Ing-wen, met with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California to showcase the solidarity of so-called U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Hence, the interactions across the narrower strait between the mainland and Taiwan and the wider ocean between China and the United States are reaching a more complex and sensitive stage, as the gravity of the Taiwan question on all parties is increasingly building.

Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party and the United States are trying to downplay just how provocative the Tsai-McCarthy meeting was. McCarthy himself stressed that the meeting was for peace, not for war. However, such rhetoric didn’t pan out. As the No. 3 person in the line of presidential succession in case of emergency, McCarthy’s brazen meeting with Tsai in U.S. territory was an overt government show that went against the commitment Washington had made in the three joint communiques. Since the Trump era, there have been calls to lift the rules prohibiting political interaction between the U.S. and Taiwan. Mike Pompeo, the former U.S. secretary of state, wrote in his memoir that such restrictions revealed the “bureaucratic inertia” of the State Department along with its fear of riling Beijing.

Direct interactions between U.S. government figures and Taiwan are anything but trivial. They erode Washington’s policy credibility on Taiwan and the political foundation of China-U.S. ties. The Chinese mainland has every reason to worry that America’s policy is shifting toward “one China, one Taiwan.” The pendulum of history is likely to swing to a time before 1979, when China and the U.S. established diplomatic ties. If we let it slide, there’s a possibility that the Taiwan leader will show up in Washington and even deliver speeches to the U.S. Congress. This is actually part of the calculus of anti-China politicians.

Another key element of the Tsai-McCarthy meeting lies in the Six Assurances. In 1982, when China and the U.S. were negotiating about the August 17 communique, then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan made several promises to Chiang Ching-kuo, the leader of Taiwan at the time, including not setting a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, not taking any position on the sovereignty of Taiwan and not exerting pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with Beijing. The record of the Six Assurances was, for a long time, restricted as top secret in the U.S., which, nevertheless, in recent years has publicly included this act in its “one-China” policy. That Tsai and McCarthy chose to meet at the Reagan Library indicated their intention to further promote the political status of the Six Assurances.

Reagan was viewed as a hero in leading the U.S. to defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and his slogan "Peace through strength” has been admired by American politicians as the gold standard. The increasing political interaction between the U.S. and Taiwan — especially that the two sides are accelerating their defense and security ties — is not symbolic but quite substantive. At a congressional hearing, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner gave a long spiel about Taiwan’s strategic significance to the U.S. “Taiwan is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners," he said.

What we should stay vigilant about is that some top officials and members of Congress think they cannot allow the Chinese mainland and Taiwan to be reunified, either by peaceful means or by force. They firmly believe that China’s reunification would be an unacceptable shock to U.S. hegemony.

Since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, the United States has increasingly used force to prevent Beijing’s reunification effort. Washington is attempting to develop Taiwan into a porcupine that the mainland can’t touch, win over or swallow up. Since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the U.S. government has approved nine instances of arms sales to Taiwan, including advanced offensive weapons, and has aimed to strengthen the region’s so-called “asymmetric capabilities.” Last year, Congress also authorized up to $10 billion in military assistance to Taiwan. Mike Gallagher, chairman of the newly established Select Committee on China in the House, and Young Kim, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Indo-Pacific, among other members of Congress, are pushing the U.S. government and defense companies to expedite the delivery of weapons to Taiwan, including transferring Harpoon missiles originally designated for Saudi Arabia to the island.

Upon returning from the U.S. to Taipei, Tsai met with a delegation led by Michael McCaul, chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. McCaul talked about two detailed plans to speed up the delivery of weapons: One is to reprioritize weapons sales given the island is in a high threat area; the other is to seek third party sales. Some American experts agitated for America's European allies, as well as Japan and South Korea, to sell advanced missiles and battle tanks to Taiwan, in the form of an “arsenal of democracy,” to improve the region’s abilities to deal with the mainland’s possible use of force for reunification. What’s more, the U.S. has been backing Taiwan authorities in creating stronger defense supply chains by developing and producing advanced weaponry and ammunition.

All the moves are turning Taiwan into the front line in a China-U.S. military confrontation. Washington’s increasing manipulation of the Taiwan Strait crisis is intertwined with its strategy to counter China in the next “decisive decade.” The U.S. has been saying that the Chinese mainland will “be ready by 2027 to invade Taiwan.” This conjectural timeline might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s no doubt that the structural crisis Taiwan is confronted with comes from the ever- escalating rivalry of the U.S. against China. In the meantime, we can’t underestimate the importance of Taiwan as a key variable itself. The 2024 elections on the island are drawing near. We have every reason to worry that its leadership changes may intensify the current tensions.

Washington’s provocations on the Taiwan question have seriously impacted how, and to what degree, China and the U.S. can recover their high-level interactions in diplomacy and security. If Washington fails to comprehensively and deeply examine the high risks involved in the Taiwan question and sets up more “fences” as described by the Biden administration, a war will be likely to break out between the two countries. The international community has realized the severity of this challenge. As French President Emmanuel Macron said, Europe should not follow the U.S. over Taiwan in an acceleration of the crisis. 

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