Taiwan Needs World’s Support to Defend its Sovereignty
Prof Rajaram Panda

Like the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits is another flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific region. Both have the China factor where it is flexing its military muscle. While in the South China Sea, it is in conflict with some other Asian countries which make sovereignty claims in the parts of the sea that fall within their exclusive economic zones, China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety. It has not only been engaged in island-building and militarisation activities, its naval vessels have been sailing on a continuing basis in other claimants’ fishing zones. The South China Sea is believed to possess huge amount of resources and China wants to take exclusive control over these precious materials. Thus far, periodic skirmishes have occurred but none have escalated into a major conflict. But the potential for a conflict has in no way diminished. The US has assured protection of security as the smaller Asian countries having stakes are incapable of fighting China unilaterally. This does not mean that the South China Sea has ceased to become a flash point.

However, the Chinese policy on Taiwan, which it considers as a renegade and breakaway province and cannot make claim to be an independent country, has been facing China’s threat of the use of force to integrate it with the mainland. Here lies the danger. If Beijing ever takes military action against Taiwan, it will inevitably draw other countries into the conflict, thereby precipitating a regional conflagration. The US will be the first responder and shall come to Taiwan’s rescue. This analysis make an attempt to explore if war over the Taiwan Straits is imminent and how to deal with this if it really breaks out or could it be prevented from breaking out by prior pro-active diplomacy. For the purpose of this analysis, it is assumed that the Taiwan Strait is a greater potential flashpoint than the South China Sea in the near term.

Background of Beijing’s Claims

Though Beijing has been making its sovereignty claims over Taiwan ever since the communist forces of Mao Zedong steadily gained ground in China, the Chinese Nationalists and their leader Chang Kai-shek fled from China to the island of Taiwan on 8 December 1949, where they established their new capital in Taipei. This marked the beginning of the “two Chinas” scenario that left mainland China under communist control and vexed US diplomacy for the next 30 years. It also signalled the effective end of the long struggle between Chinese Nationalist forces and those of the communist leader Mao Zedong, though scattered Chinese Nationalists continued sporadic combat with the communist armies till they were completely decimated.

Under pressure from China lobby which supported the cause of the Nationalists, the Harry S. Truman administration was pressurised to continue supporting the Nationalists government and not recognise the Communist government in the mainland. Truman’s decision to recognise the Chang Kai-shek government in Taipei infuriated Mao, ending any possibility for diplomatic relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China.1 During the post-1949 years, the US continued to support Taiwan until 1971 when President Richard Nixon sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a secret mission to Beijing to explore the possibility of switching allegiance from Taiwan to China. Nixon’s policy decision was seen as a move to counterbalance the US’ perceived emergence of the USSR as a potential rival.2 Finally, in 1979, the US officially recognised China, while assuring Taiwan of its support.

Post-allegiance Switch

Relations between the US and China and the US and Taiwan underwent perceptible changes after the US switched allegiance from Taiwan to China. As China’s economic and military muscle started acquiring greater strengths and the USSR disintegrated, thereby heralding the end of the Cold War, both the US and China started seeing each other in different prisms. After decades of uneasy peace, America’s relations with China dramatically changed for the worse during the Donald Trump presidency. The bone of contention was the massive trade deficit the US suffered from its trade with China, which Trump wanted to correct and demanded that China must take corrective measures to correct this imbalance. Soon both sides resorted to retaliatory measures towards each other in the form of hike in tariff on imports, banning certain items and others. As bilateral ties moved to the next stage of “freefall”, the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan added another dimension to the Sino-US ties. China was accused of hiding the information in the initial stage. The world started looking at China with suspicious eyes.

China started hardening its position on Taiwan and escalated tensions by constant military posturing and political signalling of its coercive policies. The ‘unification by force’ lobby at home went overboard and demanded military action to punish Taiwan. As a result, the concern over the possible military takeover of Taiwan by China exacerbated exponentially.

Argument to Strengthen Pacific Command

In March, Admiral Phil Davidson of the US Indo-Pacific Command testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that China could attempt to take control of Taiwan by the end of this decade.3 Davidson told the lawmakers that China is accelerating its ambitions to supplant the US and its leadership role in the rules-based international order and has positioned itself to play that role by 2050. China’s recent activities in the Senkaku Islands, Hong Kong, Tibet and South China Sea and use of ships, aircrafts, rockets, etc are indicative of China’s long-term strategy to replace the US as the No.1 power in the world and reshape the global order on its own terms. Davidson observed that though America’s “strategic ambiguity” policy towards Taiwan has likely helped Taiwan to remain independent from mainland China, policies like it ought to go through reassessment.

Whenever the US speaks with the Taiwanese leadership, China raises objections and accuses the US of violating the long-established one-China policy. He therefore, argued for “consistent and persistent arms sales” as a way for the US to help Taiwan bolster its defence capability.

The United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), a unified command of the US Armed Forces responsible for the Indo-Pacific region helps Taiwan each year with its annual Han Kuang military drill. The INDOPACOM is seeking $4.68 billion for fiscal 2022 for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) which was created in 2020 to counter China in the region.4 The command would need another $22.69 billion from fiscal 2023 through fiscal 2027 to accomplish the initiative’s goals.5 An argument that is gaining currency in the US is for getting a homeland missile defence system to protect Guam from Chinese missiles. It is also argued that building an Aegis Ashore facility on Guam would relief three guided-missile destroyers from missile defence work so they could be available to the Navy for tasking.6 The current use of the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system paired with an Aegis destroyer is not sufficient to address the threat posed by China, it is argued.7

Is War then Imminent?

If the US assessment of China taking control of Taiwan in the next six years is going to be correct, such a possibility could significantly heighten the threat and imminence of a war over Taiwan, most likely fought between the US and China. While China’s 2035 Plan8 and the 14th Five-Year Plan9 prioritize domestic development instead of national unification, the debates as to whether Beijing has made any determined decision to wage a war in the next few years continues. China’s top leaders however, still stick to the formula of “peaceful unification”. This however does not overlook Beijing’s war preparations and military posturing towards Taiwan that have accelerated in recent years. These have included military build-up, repeated coercive shows of force as well as government-manipulated nationalism calling for “unification by force”. While such posturing send conflicting messages, the US just cannot afford to relax its guard and getting ready to challenge China if it crosses the red line and launches military assault on Taiwan.10 Even countries far away such as Australia are worried about a possible conflict over Taiwan. Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton observed that conflict with China over Taiwan “should not be discounted” and that his country will work with allies in the region to try and maintain peace. 11 Beijing lost no time in slamming Australia over Taiwan remarks, telling it to abide by one-China principle.12 It may be recalled that tensions between Australia and China have escalated over a slew of issues since April 2020. Australia cancelled its participation in China’s BRI projects, citing those as “inconsistent with its foreign policy”. China dubbed Australia’s decision as “unreasonable and provocative”. China’s reaction on Dutton’s remarks was in line with Chinese narrative.

In the latest example of China-Australia relations nose-diving was seen when Beijing’s National Development and Reform Commission “indefinitely suspended” all activities under the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, claiming that it is in response to the “current attitude” of the Australian government toward China-Australia cooperation.13 Beijing was also irked with Australia’s move to cancel the Belt and Road deal, claiming that Canberra was not interested to improve relations with China. Australian Parliament’s call to the government to reconsider revoking a 99-year lease of Darwin Port to Landbridge Group also led to escalation of tensions between the two countries.

Tensions between the two countries boiled over when Australia pushed for an international inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus without consulting Beijing in April 2020. Ever since then, trade between the two countries bore the brunt of the tensions. Calls for diversification and even “economic decoupling” became louder and louder.

China is indulging in everything that it could to strangulate the Taiwanese economy. In the latest case of China’s misdeeds, Taiwan on 28 April accused China of waging economic warfare against Taiwan’s tech sector by stealing technology and enticing away engineers.14 Taiwan is home to a thriving and world-leading semiconductor industry, used in everything from fighter jets to cars. Taiwan for long has worried about China’s efforts to copy that success, including by industrial espionage and other underhand methods. Now Taiwan’s Parliament is considering strengthening legislation to prevent this. Fearing threat from Taiwan’s success, China is trying to boost its own semiconductor industry by “poaching” Taiwanese talent as well as obtaining the industry’s commercial secrets with a view to harm Taiwan’s competitiveness.

Options for the US

Till recently, China preferred to wait and sought ways for peaceful unification. It was assumed that such a strategy would be less costly and conducive to its desired image of a peaceful rise. That narrative seems to have changed now. Beijing now perceives that America’s pre-eminence in global affairs that defined world politics for much of the post-War years is already on the wane, while China’s relative clout, both militarily and economically, has considerably increased. There is a school of thought in China which argues that further erosion of the US power could lead the US to lose interests in other world zones. And it would then be the right time to integrate the island nation by the use of force with the mainland. Though no specific time zone can be worked out as of now, this could one of the strategies that Beijing might be considering. The other view takes the position that Taiwan would be willing to begin and accept a negotiated political settlement if and when it is convinced that US support cannot be guaranteed. Those who uphold such a view overlook the fact that despite that China has emerged as a threatening power backed by its military and economic strength, it is still no match for the military might of the US and the possibility of abandoning Taiwan does not appear on the horizon.

How does Japan Factor Taiwan in its Policy?

The Taiwan issue is too complicated and both the US and China face critical policy options. Despite the fact that US stands by Taiwan, there is a delicate balance of power owing to China’s recent incursions into the Taiwanese waters. In a clear departure from his predecessor’s policy, US President Joe Biden did not hesitate to mention Taiwan in the joint statement issued after his meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on 16 April. The mention of Taiwan in a joint statement for the first time since 1969 is significant because the statement was issued days after China sent 25 aircraft, including fighters and nuclear-capable bombers, near Taiwan to intimidate the island nation.15

The statement included words like “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues” for the first time in half a century. The last time the Taiwan issue was mentioned in the US-Japan joint statement was when Prime Minister Eisaku Sato visited Washington on 21 November 1969 when the importance of Taiwan’s peace and security to Japan’s security was emphasised. But Taiwan was an ally of the US at the time. However, when Japan and the US normalised their respective relations with China in the 1970s, Taiwan ceased to be mentioned in any Japan-US future statement. Then geopolitical changes following China’s rise and pursuance of an aggressive foreign policy, the strategic consideration changed in Tokyo and Washington on how to define their policies on Taiwan. This is because Beijing became more assertive and vocal in claiming Taiwan as Chinese territory and threatened to incorporate with the mainland by use of force if peaceful reunification was not an option for Taiwan.

The scenario changed when President Lee Teng-hui in 1990s embarked on democratizing Taiwan while emphasizing his Taiwanese identity, and called for the first direct presidential elections in Taiwan. Beijing responded to Taiwan seeking a new identity by firing multiple missiles into the waters of Taiwan, which it called “military exercises”, but in reality to intimidate Taiwan. The US responded by dispatching an aircraft carrier task force. China was forced to withdraw as it was not confident then of its military prowess. Later, it transpires that Beijing did not forget this humiliation.16

As China’s military power becomes more muscular, it started to become more belligerent, posing new challenges to the US and other stakeholders in the region as any military adventure on China’s part on Taiwan can have unintended consequences. While the present Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen prefers to maintain the status quo through balanced diplomacy, Chinese President Xi Jinping has both the capability and intention to invade Taiwan. Kanehara says it the “question is when”.17 He further says that this harsh reality was the main reason why the words like “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” appeared prominently in the Biden-Suga joint statement. Kanehara, the former assistant chief cabinet secretary in Japan, therefore sees Taiwan contingency as also a Japan contingency.18 He therefore, argues for Japan and the US to build a flawless alliance to deter a Taiwan contingency from ever occurring.

The US commitment to defend Taiwan is nothing short of diplomatic recognition. Even in 2020 when Trump raised trade deficit issue with China, the US dispatched USS McCampbell guided-missile destroyer to the Taiwan Strait as a routine demonstration of US commitment to ensure that China’s relations with Taiwan remain peaceful. The US felt this necessary in order to send a stronger signal to China’s leadership deterring any military action on Taiwan.19 The US also encourages Taiwan to develop asymmetric, A2/AD capabilities. Further, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 201820 mandates the US government to provide Taiwan with arms. This includes symmetric capabilities that are integrated, mobile, survivable, and cost-effective. Also, under the TAIPEI Act of 2019,21 the US government has a responsibility to execute it. The Act calls on the President and other representatives of the government to advocate for “Taiwan’s membership in all international organisations in which statehood is not a requirement and in which the US is also a participant; and for Taiwan to be granted observer status in other appropriate international organisations”.22 This includes the World Health Assembly that governs the World Health Organisation.

None of these actions constitute formal recognition of Taiwan as an independent country or violate America’s “One-China” policy—which provides a less rigid definition of cross-Strait relations than Beijing’s preferred “One-China” principle. Based on such US assurances, Taiwan should feel confident to contribute to the international system in meaningful ways. Further, other countries need not feel shy to remain invested in Taiwan’s survival. Regretfully, China has wooed many small nations in Africa and elsewhere by economic doles to switch allegiance. Still, Taiwan would not remain an orphan in the international community. There is also increasing clamour in India among security analysts to upgrade India’s relations with Taiwan. The signal of India’s intentions has already been passed on to Beijing when India chose to send a senior diplomat to its representative office in Taipei.23 Democracy and democratic values deserve to be supported. Taiwan is a test case for the international community.

  1. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/chinese-nationalists-move-capital-to-taiwan
  2. https://southreport.com/china-us-relations-henry-kissingers-secret-visit-to-china-through-pakistan-and-fake-kissinger/
  3. Mallory Shelbourne, “Davidson: China Could Try to Take Control of Taiwan In ‘Next Six Years’”, 9 March 2021, https://news.usni.org/2021/03/09/davidson-china-could-try-to-take-control-of-taiwan-in-next-six-years
  4. Michael McGrady, “US Indo-Pacific Command asks for funding of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative”, 5 March 2021, https://maritime.direct/en/2021/03/05/us-indo-pacific-command-asks-for-funding-of-the-pacific-deterrence-initiative/
  5. Joe Gould, “Eyeing China, Indo-Pacific Command seeks $27 billion deterrence fund”, 1 March 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2021/03/02/eyeing-china-indo-pacific-command-seeks-27-billion-deterrence-fund/
  6. Mallory Shelbourne, “Davidson: Aegis Ashore on Guam Would ‘Free Up’ 3 Navy Destroyers”, 4 March 2021, https://news.usni.org/2021/03/04/davidson-aegis-ashore-on-guam-would-free-up-3-navy-destroyers
  7. Ibid.
  8. Bob Savic, “China’s Vision 2035: From Beijing’s Forbidden City to Interconnected Eurasian Megacity”, 24 March 2021, https://www.china-briefing.com/news/chinas-vision-2035-from-beijings-forbidden-city-to-interconnected-eurasian-megacity/
  9. “China’s 14th Five-Year Plan: A Blueprint For Modernization”, 26 November 2020, https://nepalforeignaffairs.com/chinas-14th-five-year-plan-a-blueprint-for-modernization/
  10. Yun Sun, “Is War Over Taiwan Imminent?”, 15 April 2021, https://www.apln.network/analysis/commentaries/is-war-over-taiwan-imminent. The same is also published in The Korea Times, 14 April 2021, See, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2021/04/197_307067.html
  11. Sarah Martin, “Australian defence minister says conflict over Taiwan involving China ‘should not be discounted’”, The Guardian, 25 April 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/25/australian-defence-minister-says-conflict-over-taiwan-involving-china-should-not-be-discounted
  12. https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/beijing-slams-australia-over-taiwan-remarks-tells-it-to-abide-by-one-china-principle20210427024137/
  13. Teddy Ng, “China-Australia Relations: Beijing ‘indefinitely suspends’ high-level economic dialogue with Canberra”, 6 May 2021, https://www.scmp.com/economy/article/3132425/china-australia-relations-beijing-indefinitely-suspends-high-level-economic
  14. “Taiwan says China waging economic warfare against tech sector”, The Economic Times, 28 April 2021, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/taiwan-says-china-waging-economic-warfare-against-tech-sector/articleshow/82287129.cms?utm_source=ETTopNews&utm_medium=
  15. Rajaram Panda, “Explained: Suga-Biden Summit – Strengthening Alliance”, 26 April 2021, https://www.vifindia.org/article/2021/april/26/explained-suga-biden-summit-strengthening-alliance
  16. Nobukatsu Kanehara, “In our region: A Taiwan Contingency is a Japan Contingency”, Japan Forward, 6 May 2021, https://japan-forward.com/in-our-region-a-taiwan-contingency-is-a-japan-contingency/
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Patrick M. Cronin and Ryan Neuhard, “Defending Taiwan Short of Diplomatic Recognition”, 20 May 2020, https://www.hudson.org/research/16053-defending-taiwan-short-of-diplomatic-recognition v
  20. See, https://www.congress.gov/115/plaws/publ409/PLAW-115publ409.pdf
  21. See, “Trump signs TAIPEI Act, threatening ‘consequences’ for nations that fail to toe US line on Taiwan”, 27 March 2020, https://www.rt.com/news/484220-trump-taipei-act-china/
  22. Ibid.
  23. For the author’s views on this, see, Rajaram Panda, “A Case for Deepening India-Taiwan Relations”, 30 October 2020, https://www.vifindia.org/article/2020/october/30/a-case-for-deepening-india-taiwan-ties

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source: https://bsmedia.business-standard.com/_media/bs/img/article/2020-10/08/full/1602140472-5361.jpg

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
2 + 18 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us