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U.S. Senators in Taiwan

Jun 30, 2021

On June 6, three U.S. senators — Democrats and Republicans — visited Taiwan for three hours via U.S. military C-17 transport aircraft. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office all expressed “resolute opposition” and made solemn representations to the U.S. side. They stated the Chinese government’s clear objection.

Those who had expected to challenge Beijing, test its bottom lines or provoke it in some fashion may be more or less disappointed. But was the carefully masterminded visit — the first to Taiwan since 1979 by U.S. senators in a military aircraft — one of a kind or the first of new affronts? Did Beijing’s response send the proper signal?

First, this incident may be interpreted in different ways considering the ample ambiguity surrounding it. In the first place, what landed in Taiwan was a military transport aircraft, which is subject to interpretation. This was not the first time a U.S. military cargo flight had landed in Taiwan, but each time in the past had to do with disaster relief or humanitarian aid. This time, the people aboard the aircraft included a disabled senator, who had trouble moving around. It is thus not unreasonable to read it from a humanitarian perspective, but it certainly won’t be impossible to make a considerable fuss.

Second, this was not the first time U.S. senators have visited Taiwan to meet its leaders. Each time, China has sent a message of resolute opposition, and this time was no exception. However, it’s not impossible that the Chinese side could interpret it more seriously and take harsher measures. 

Third, the visiting U.S. senators brought with them the message of a vaccine donation (although it has not yet been honored) with the apparent intent of competing with the Chinese mainland. So there also were humanitarian elements associated with the visit. At such a critical juncture in the containment of COVID-19, pandemic control comes first, so it may be reasonable for China to refrain from taking further measures for the time being, having clarified its attitude and bottom line.

Fourth, the incident occurred before the grand celebration of the Communist Party of China’s 100th anniversary, which is the most important event of the year for the nation. The Chinese people have been making meticulous preparations. It is a Chinese political tradition to not amplify divergences on festive occasions. Rather, it is an important custom in Chinese politics to take advantage of celebrations to look back on history, affirm the present and look into the future. Utilizing the celebration to rally people and point the direction to the future are integral parts.

The importance of celebrations is beyond Westerners’ imaginations. Restraining the manner of expression for the sake of a celebration doesn’t mean China doesn't attach sufficient significance to the incident such as this, or that it didn’t touch a Chinese bottom line in bilateral relations. China may have expressed its attitude first and then put it aside to deal with after the celebration is over. That would be normal in Chinese politics.

Fifth, it is a very boring game to test Chinese bottom lines with such ploys, but the accumulation of such incidents may be dangerous. They will inevitably result in qualitative changes in relations between China and the U.S., as well as Chinese people across the Taiwan Strait. Note that Democratic Progressive Party authorities and some politicians in Taiwan are fond of masterminding such incidents to showcase the intimacy between the island and the United States, and to shift public attention from their poor governance, which has caused considerable dissatisfaction.

In addition, some member of the U.S. Congress like to participate in this kind of activity because they not only make headlines but also bring substantial benefits. Believing that Beijing will only respond orally and won’t dare to take substantive action, some U.S. politicians, as well as those in Taiwan, have continually pushed the envelope. But they are wrong to do so. This is a result of ignorance of Chinese politics, which is an important reason the U.S. has made consecutive strategic and tactical misjudgments about China.

So far, the Chinese government has said there has been no change in its policies toward Taiwan — that is, there will be no change in its general policy of adhering to peaceful reunification under a one country, two systems model. This means it won't take drastic measures to resolve the Taiwan issue by force. However, some politicians in Taiwan have been taking advantage of China-U.S. geopolitical competition to seek independence, counting on U.S. support and relentlessly lobbying some American politicians in the hope that the U.S. will one day change its one-China stance.

American politicians who know the history of the Taiwan issue are declining in number even as forces seeking to get the U.S. government to pressure China and change its one-China stance are gaining traction. This is worthy of vigilance. There is natural competition between China and the U.S. — two major countries — but there is also cooperation. China has been making policy in accordance with the big picture of its relations with the U.S. However, using this kind of theater to constantly test the patience and bottom line of the general public on the Chinese mainland and challenge the dignity of the Chinese government will certainly lead the latter to adjust and change its policy toward Taiwan, which will result in great damage to U.S. interests in the western Pacific.

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