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The Taiwan Factor

May 24, 2020
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, CICIR

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, interactions between the United States and Taiwan have escalated again, moving forward in small yet rapid steps toward what’s been called a “substantive breakthrough.”

That doesn’t bode well in the context of an intensifying China-U.S. rivalry. More interaction will significantly reduce the room for effective crisis management by China and the United States, and it could lead to a dangerous showdown.

The escalation of U.S.-Taiwan interactions is characterized by three main dynamics.

First, legislation in the U.S. Congress has attempted to gradually hollow out the three joint communiques issued by the People’s Republic of China and the United States — the Shanghai Communique in 1972, the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations in 1979 and the August 17 Communique in 1982. These formed the fundamental political basis for the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations.

Since 2018, Congress has passed by “unanimous” votes the Taiwan Travel Act, to enhance high-level U.S.-Taiwan interactions; the Taiwan Assurance Act, which calls for regular arms sales to Taiwan and the resumption of U.S.-Taiwan trade agreement talks; and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, which helps Taiwan consolidate its ties with its so-called diplomatic allies.

In addition, Congress has incorporated many provisions dealing with aid to Taiwan into U.S. National Defense Authorization Acts in three consecutive fiscal years, 2018-20.

These moves are a naked attempt to make public the covert interactions between the United States and Taiwan and give them a state-to-state connotation.

Second, Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy is aligned with the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the U.S., thus establishing comprehensive coordination in the regional strategies of both.

The New Southbound Policy is intended to enhance the economic diversification of Taiwan and expand its external economic relations; but overall, its outcomes have been less than desirable. Since the United States has stepped up its efforts to implement the Indo-Pacific Strategy, however, strategic coordination between the two parties on this policy has been significantly strengthened.

On the one hand, Taiwan authorities led by the Democratic Progressive Party have leaned on the United States, trying to take advantage of the Indo-Pacific Strategy to make breakthroughs in its New Southbound Policy. For example, in December 2017, Tsai Ing-wen claimed that Taiwan was a “stakeholder in a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.”

On the other hand, the United States wants to integrate Taiwan into its Indo-Pacific Strategy to maximize its effectiveness in containing China. For this purpose, Congress passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act at the end of 2018, which includes a place for Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. In June 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which designates Taiwan as one of the four key “countries” in its efforts to strengthen partnerships across the region.

As a result, close collaboration between the United States and Taiwan on major regional strategic issues has developed, and it marks an important “breakthrough” in their strategic interaction. This had not happened before, even during the Obama administration’s push for “rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific.”

Finally, interactions between U.S and Taiwan officials have become normalized and, together with large-scale arms sales cooperation, the relationship has become increasingly substantive at the operational level. In the past two years, Taiwan’s secretary-general of its so-called national security council met with the U.S. national security adviser to the U.S. president for the first time in 40 years. In addition, the “vice president-elect” of Taiwan made a high-profile visit to the United States; American and Taiwan officials met for the first time with officials of Taiwan’s “diplomatic allies”; and visits to Taiwan by U.S. officials at the assistant ministerial level have become the virtual norm.

Meanwhile, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, an important anchor of their relationship, have risen sharply. In 2019, the U.S. announced four military sales to Taiwan totaling $10.7 billion, making Taiwan the world’s biggest buyer of U.S. weapons that year.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two sides have not only cooperated in efforts to fight it but also continued to interact intensively at the international level. The United States has repeatedly hailed Taiwan’s “successful response to the pandemic” and called loudly for international support for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Assembly.

These escalations of connections between the U.S. and Taiwan show that in its strategic design to contain China, the United States is not currently aware (or willfully doesn’t want to be aware) of the high sensitivity of the Taiwan question and of the risks involved in playing the Taiwan card.

The escalation of relations will not only undermine the tacit understanding between China and the United States on this issue over the past 40 years — the cornerstone of their bilateral relations — but will have a severe impact on the already fragile crisis management mechanism of the two countries.

On the one hand, in the face of escalating U.S.-Taiwan interaction, the Chinese side is more alert to the dangers of the U.S. strategy toward China. In China’s view, the use of Taiwan as a means of containing China is no longer just a strategic concept of the United States; it is a full-blown policy backed by concrete action. And China’s basic trust in the United States seems to have disappeared. In the theory and practice of crisis management, the lack of basic trust means that crisis management will not be effective. One party will always assume that the other is more interested in creating and amplifying crises than in managing them.

On the other hand, because of the substantial escalation of U.S.-Taiwan interactions, China’s awareness of the necessity of retaliation has increased — although that does not necessarily mean direct military confrontation. This may explain why “responsive” military actions by China and the United States in the vicinity of Taiwan have increased. Backed by the political posture of U.S. officials and legislators, who express goodwill toward Taiwan, the U.S. military’s recent activities in the Taiwan Strait have become even more unscrupulous, with frequent drills, reconnaissance and other activities that seem designed to challenge China’s normal military activities.

The Taiwan question is so sensitive that it has the potential to trigger major crises between China and the United States. The U.S. activities mentioned above will increase the risk of friction and add greater uncertainty to crisis management. Thus, both the lack of trust at the strategic level and the risk of miscalculation at the operational level will significantly reduce room for effective crisis management.

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