Only the US Can Sustain the Peace in Taiwan

31-Mar-2018 Intellasia | Bloomberg | 7:11 AM Print This Post

Recent weeks have seen significant developments in the awkward three-way relationship between Taiwan, China and the US First, President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which made it American policy to encourage greater high-level contacts  including defense and national security ones  with Taiwan, despite the displeasure those contacts will surely incur from China. Second,Taiwan’s spy chief warned that a more empowered and assertive Chinese government, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is now relying on “more sharp-elbow rhetoric and tactics” to deal with an island it considers a renegade province.North Koreaand theSouth China Seamay be the Asian hot spots getting the most attention today. But the waters are getting choppy in theTaiwan Strait, as tensions rise and the threat of crisis grows.

Hostility betweenTaiwanand the mainland dates back to 1949, when the remnants of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist regime took refuge on the island after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. For more than two decades, theUSprotectedTaiwanand recognised Chiang’s government as the sole representative ofChinabefore shifting its allegiances and diplomatic recognition to Mao’s regime in the 1970s. Since then,Taiwanhas continued to exercise de facto sovereignty but not de jure independence, and all but a small number of countries have transferred diplomatic recognition toBeijing. TheUShas pursued an equally ambiguous policy of not recognisingTaipeidiplomatically but selling it weapons for self-defense. It has also pledged  albeit in very hedged and murky terms  to preventChinafrom using force to bringTaiwanto heel.

This situation has never been comfortable, but it has nonetheless endured longer than almost anyone would have predicted. And from 2008 to 2016,Chinapursued the goal of unification primarily through carrots rather than sticks, by working with the comparatively friendly government of Ma Ying-Jeou to increase economic, cultural and political ties. The idea animating this policy was that weaving a denser web of interactions betweenTaiwanand the mainland might lead to the eventual peaceful reabsorption of the island.

For years, Chinese leaders could reassure themselves thatTaiwan’s anomalous status was tolerable, because in the long run, unification was simply a matter of time. Now, however, they have to face the possibility that time is not on their side after all.

InTaiwan, the tide is increasingly turning away from the idea of unification withChina. Polls show that a large majority of the population now considers itself Taiwanese rather than Chinese. Moreover, as Taiwanese democracy has matured and its citizens have seen howChinahas slowly squeezed the life out ofHong Kong’s political institutions, public support for unification has dropped sharply. These trends were offset for much of the past decade by Ma’s generally conciliatory policy. But the election of Tsai Ing-Wen in 2016 brought to power the Democratic Progressive Party, which traditionally supported outright independence. ForBeijing, any declaration of Taiwanese independence would cross a bright red line, perhaps triggering the use of force. And although Tsai has since pledged to respect the status quo, suspicions persist inBeijingthat she will maneuverTaiwantoward a formal break.

China’s incentives for a sharper policy have simultaneously been growing. The awesome rise of Chinese power over the past few decades has givenBeijingbetter options for coercing  whether economically or militarily  a waywardTaiwan. Most analysts still agree thatChinawould face enormous difficulties in invading and conqueringTaiwan, especially if theUSintervened inTaipei’s defense. But Beijing’s increasingly impressive naval, air and missile capabilities have nonetheless given it a bigger stick to wield, and its development of anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, capabilities have raised the prospect that US forces coming to Taiwan’s defense might suffer enormous losses. As a 2015 Rand Corp. study concluded, theUSis approaching, if it has not already reached, the point at which the defense ofTaiwanmight be too costly to contemplate.

Rising Chinese nationalism is also making it more difficult politically forBeijing’s leaders to defer the question ofTaiwan’s status indefinitely. And then there is Xi Jinping.China’s supreme leader clearly aspires to claim great-power status for his country, something that is incompatible with the continuing humiliation imposed byTaiwan’s separation. He and other Chinese officials have stated that they will not wait forever forTaiwanto return toBeijing’s control. A leader who seems to believe that both he and his country have a great historical destiny to fulfill might very much like to have unification withTaiwanbecome part of his legacy.

After Tsai’s election,Beijingthus restricted tourism toTaiwanand imports of key Taiwanese goods, such as fish, in an effort to punish the island economically.Beijinghas upped its military presence in the waters and airspace around the island, and ostentatiously sent its aircraft carrier through the strait as an unsubtle reminder of Chinese military power. Retired Chinese military brass have urged the government to plan for an invasion ofTaiwan. Experts still believe an outright military showdown is unlikely, but the cross-strait relationship nonetheless appears to be entering another period of heightened tensions.

Those tensions will pose a challenge for the US In the years after the opening to Mao’s regime in 1971, US officials initially sawTaiwanas an unwelcome irritant to a budding geopolitical relationship with the mainland. ButChinawas a tacit Cold War ally back then. Today,Chinarepresents perhaps the greatest threat to American interests and influence, both in the Asia-Pacific and globally, andTaiwanis a critical frontline state. It would not serve US interests forTaiwanto provoke a military crisis with the mainland; it would also be a strategic disaster wereBeijingto successfully coerce or compel reunification withTaiwan.

These competing pressures dictate a careful balancing act. TheUSshould continue to cautionTaipeiagainst making destabilising moves toward independence. It should probably not inflame the situation by once again extending formal diplomatic recognition toTaiwanor otherwise revisiting the “oneChina” policy, as incoming national security adviser John Bolton has sometimes suggested. Yet it should nonetheless help strengthen the island against aggression or coercion.

This means investing in theUSmilitary capabilities necessary to burstChina’s A2/AD bubble should conflict erupt. It means pushingTaiwanto acquire and emphasize its own A2/AD capabilities to frustrate any Chinese military operations until theUScan intervene. It means helping to strengthenTaiwandiplomatically and economically by encouraging stronger ties with otherUSallies and partners in the Asia-Pacific.

Finally, it means pushing ahead with the expanded high-level contacts and visits called for by the Taiwan Travel Act.Beijingwill fulminate against those contacts and try to punishTaiwaneconomically or diplomatically in their wake. But they will give US officials better insight into the state of Taiwanese politics and security, and they will send the crucial message that more aggressive Chinese behavior will


Category: Taiwan

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