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Triple Logic over Taiwan

May 08, 2021
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The Taiwan question is a matter of Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity and as such has long been the most important and sensitive core issue in relations between China and the United States.

U.S. President Joe Biden has maintained the policy of his predecessor toward Taiwan, following through on many of Donald Trump’s initiatives — for example, relaxing restrictions on contact between U.S. and Taiwan officials, enhancing maritime police cooperation and assisting in consolidating Taiwan’s so-called diplomatic relations. These moves have brought steady enhancements.

The U.S. bipartisan consensus on Taiwan also reflects some changes in the strategic meaning of the Taiwan question in the process of reassessing U.S. policy toward China.

The Biden administration’s elevation of U.S.-Taiwan relations is based on three main threads of logic:

First, by enhancing its relations with Taiwan, the U.S. seeks to restore “balance” with Beijing. The imbalance of power has been an objective reality for many years and is a long-term trend that is difficult to reverse. In this regard, the past several U.S. administrations did not take changing the trend as an important policy goal.

But in the Biden administration’s view, “restoring balance” is the fundamental way to restrain Beijing from seeking national reunification and maintain the status quo, which is most beneficial to the United States. The U.S. hopes to make up for the huge deficiency in Taiwan’s power by enhancing U.S.-Taiwan relations.

Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs, has said that regional order is most effective only when a balanced posture is maintained. The “offshore balancing” is a tried-and-true strategic tool of U.S. foreign policy, and it has worked well with regard to Taiwan, though it is not new.

Second, by enhancing U.S.-Taiwan relations, the U.S. can carry out crisis prevention and control from a strategic level. In the view of the U.S., Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan, especially the acceleration of military preparations, is likely to force the U.S. to intervene, which in turn will lead to a shift from competition to conflict between China and the U.S.

Indo-Pacific Command Commander Philip Davidson recently said that China may try to retake Taiwan by force in the next six years. This is a clear indication of U.S. apprehension. For this reason, the Biden administration believes that the United States needs to continue to demonstrate a strong commitment to Taiwan’s security. It also believes that it is necessary to send signals and demonstrate deterrence to China through practical actions, so as to prevent China from underestimating the determination of the United States to “assist in defending Taiwan” and prevent China from taking coercive actions that may lead to adverse outcomes for the United States.

Third, enhancement of U.S.-Taiwan relations arises from a renewed U.S. perception of Taiwan’s strategic value. For a long time in U.S. strategic calculations on the Asia-Pacific and China, Taiwan’s importance has been mainly reflected in its geostrategic value. For example, it has been referred to as the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for restraining China.

With the emergence of comprehensive competition between China and the United States, however, especially within the framework of technological competition, Taiwan’s new strategic value as the world’s leading semiconductor production and research and development base has increased for the U.S. According to SEMI (Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International), Taiwan ranked second in the world in sales of semiconductor equipment last year and is a global leader in the field of high-end chip manufacturing. Control of Taiwan would undoubtedly help the United States to gain an advantage in the competition for high-value technology.

These three lines of logic currently dominate the basic framework of the Biden administration’s policy toward Taiwan and may influence the ongoing strategic assessment of China because of their critical importance. The current phase of enhancement of U.S.-Taiwan relations may acquire a more strategic connotation and will inevitably have long-term implications for the ultimate resolution of the Taiwan question.

The primary problem is whether the one-China policy, which was agreed to by the U.S., is headed for a complete hollowing out. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the United States has taken small steps to gradually erode the core of the one-China policy, and the U.S. is making significant inroads in Taiwan in many areas, including official contacts, military cooperation and international collaboration.

More important, the rising relationship has now triggered a policy discussion in the U.S. strategic community about whether to abandon strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan — that is, whether the United States should make clear that it will take military action to defend Taiwan in hope of deterring Beijing from taking coercive action that would change the status quo. If so, this would represent a major change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Its long-held adherence to the one-China policy might become moot.

A basic question is critical: Given the heightened sensitivity on Taiwan can China and the United States manage the question effectively, or will it lead to an eventual showdown between the two countries? Both countries are acutely aware of the sensitivity of the matter, which could help them deal with it — and their mutual relations — in a rational and sound manner. However, as U.S. policy intensifies and even approaches China’s policy red lines, it is highly doubtful that U.S. behavior will be constrained. In the past few years, the sensitivity of the Taiwan question has become a U.S. policy lever to strengthen relations with Taiwan without fear.

The question is so important that it affects the overall situation. The Biden administration is trying to build a new policy framework for China, in essence saying that “our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” Once the Taiwan question leads to a showdown, however, that policy framework is bound to be seen as wishful thinking with no concrete policy implications. 

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