Publications /

Between a tolerable status quo and a disastrous conflict
December 3, 2021

Not all is quiet on the Chinese/Chinese front. Warships are sailing through the Taiwan Strait. One day, an American missile guided US destroyer, the next a Canadian Frigate, some Chinese submarines, or one of Beijing’s new aircraft carriers. Shadows of a new cold war, possibly turning into an unpredictable escalation. America’s National Public Radio (NPR) reporter Scott Neuman stated (October 6, 2021), “Taiwan says tensions with China are at their worst in 4 decades.”

With the situation in the South China Sea escalating, in October, the CIA Director, William Burns, said the CIA has established a new Center to “further strengthen our collective work on the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century, the acute dangers of a conflict over Taiwan”, warned an editorial in the Financial Times (October 12, 2021), and insisted that a “military conflict with China would be a disaster for the world. Beijing and Washington would emerge from such a conflict to a world riven into hostile blocs. Whoever the winner, all would lose. The choice across the Taiwan Strait is between a tolerable status quo and a disastrous conflict, and that will not change.”

 About 380 Chinese warplanes entered Taiwan’s “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) last year. More than 600 incursions had taken place so far this year, of those more than 150 the first five days in October, when Shenyang J-16 fighter jets, Xian H-6 twin bombers, and Sukhai SU-30 fighter jets provoked the island government, which for Beijing are just renegade Chinese. Not a nation as such, just an unruly province populated by 24 million people, whose leader, a woman, is a separatist, nothing less.” The maneuvers”, stated CNN (October 15, 2021), ”began on China’s National Day, October 1, a holiday commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic and a natural moment for acts or military posturing.”

 81 miles of water separate Taiwan, officially known as The Republic of China (ROC), and mainland China, the People’s Republic of China. But Beijing has retained an aggressive posture towards the island since the former nationalist government fled there at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, reported CNN.

Lindsay Maizland, of the Council on Foreign Relations (May 10, 2021) wrote, “Beijing has ramped up political and military pressure on Taipei.” In March 2021, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, commander for the Indo-Pacific region, testified before the US Senate Armed Services Committee (Intelligencer newsletter, October 7, 2021), warning that “China could attempt to reclaim Taiwan using military force within the next six years”.

The newsletter concludes: ”A Chinese offensive against Taiwan is widely considered the most likely flashpoint to potentially sparking a direct conflict between the US and Beijing”, with an uncertain outcome, as CNN revealed (October 15, 2021).

A Pyrrhic victory with massive loss of life

In extensive war games held by the US earlier this year, the American forces were able to thwart a simulated Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the year 2030-just. According to Defense News, “exercises estimated it would be a Pyrrhic victory with massive loss of life.” During a CNN-televised “town hall” meeting in Baltimore (October 22, 2021), US President Joe Biden declared the US would defend Taiwan if China should attempt to invade the island nation. However, Washington officially entertains no diplomatic relations with Taipei, and thus, no US ambassador is stationed in Taiwan.

The Wall Street Journal revealed (October 7, 2021), a few dozen Special Forces soldiers and Marines have been training the Taiwanese Forces secretly for more than one year. According to Gordon Lubold of the Wall Street Journal (October 7, 2021), “The US special operations deployment is a sign of concern within the Pentagon over Taiwan’s tactical capabilities in light of Beijing’s years long military buildup and recent threatening moves against the island.” NPR confirmed that “Beijing now has two aircraft carriers, and is increasing production of submarines and destroyers while building up its amphibious assault capabilities.”

To counter the threat, the Trump -administration sent weapons worth 18 billion dollars to Taipei. Before his inauguration, Donald Trump called Taiwan’s President Tsai Jug-wen the highest level of contact between the two sides since 1979. The US, de facto, recognized that Beijing was the legitimate government of all China, ending diplomatic ties and withdrawing US soldiers from the island.

Ever since, the US maintained a “robust unofficial relationship” (Council on Foreign Relations, May 10, 2021) with the island, advancing a policy known as strategic ambiguity; including the recent unveiling of a 250-million-dollar complex for its de facto embassy in Taipei.

 Joe Biden invited a Taiwan delegation to his Presidential inauguration and allowed the export of weapons worth 750 million dollars to Taipei in August of this year. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post observed (July 15, 2021) that the “Relationship between Taipei and Beijing has gone from friendly to frosty since 2016, as Washington ties grow warmer.” The reasons are obvious- Taiwan’s Defense Minister, former general Chiu Kuo- Cheng, recently stood in front of the island’s legislature and made “a dire prediction”. As CNN reported, by 2025, China will mount a “full scale” invasion of Taiwan.

His President, Tsai Jug-wen, declared that Taiwan will continue to boost its defenses “to ensure that nobody can force” the territory to “accept the path China has laid out for us.” (Aljazeera, October 10, 2021).

On October 9, China’s President again emphasized that Beijing desired a “peaceful reunification”, a declaration hardly convincing his Chinese opponents. Xi Jinping in the past offered Taiwan to be incorporated into the mainland under a “one country, two systems” formula, a similar structure suggested for Hongkong, including the promise of preserving political and economic independence. The crackdown on freedom in Hongkong did not encourage the Taiwanese people, of whom only 15%, as opinion polls confirmed, to dream of annexation by China (Foreign Policy, October 13, 2021).

The US Department of Defense learned the “Council on Foreign Relations, said in a 2020 report that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is “likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force. The PLA has made preparing for a Taiwan contingency one of its top priorities, and Taiwan has been a significant catalyst for China’s military modernization”.

 In a 2019 defense white paper, the PLA said it would resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China. “For Beijing, the idea that Taiwan is anything other than a subordinate is political taboo”, judged Foreign Policy (October 13, 2021). The US and its allies reported CBS News “try to walk an excellent line: a pledge to defend Taiwan from external threats is written in US law, but Washington also does not treat Taiwan as an entirely independent nation.” Only 15 of about 200 global nations entertain diplomatic relations with Taipei.

No government has ever simultaneously maintained formal diplomatic ties with both China and Taiwan. Yet, as CNN reported (October 15, 2021), ”countries around the region are defending Taiwan’s right to self-government like never before”. Japan’s Defense Minister, Nobuo Kishi, told CNN that Tokyo would “respond accordingly to any attempt by China to take Taiwan by force, while Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne committed to forging stronger ties with the island.”

“Harmful creatures”

 Her countries situation, declared President Tsai Jug-wen on October 1, the “National Day”, “is more complex and fluid than at any other point in the past 72 years.” Taiwan’s economy remains reliant on trade with China, which is the islands largest trading partner. Yet, noted the Council on Foreign Relations (May 10, 2021) “Beijing has also used nonmilitary measures to pressure Taiwan”. For example, it restricted tourism to Taiwan, and “the number of mainland tourists visiting Taiwan has fallen from a high of over 4 million in 2015 to 2.7 million in 2019. China has also pressured global corporations, including airlines and hotel chains, to list Taiwan as a Chinese Province.”

 Furthermore, China rejects Taiwan’s participation in UN agencies and other international organizations that limit membership to states. Even at the height of the pandemic, Bejing refused to allow Taiwan’s involvement in the World Health Organization, concerned it might give the impression the island was not part of China. When the issue of Taiwan’s membership came up in May of this year, the CNN newsletter wrote (October 15, 2021), ”China’s ambassador to the UN, Chen Xu, said countries should stop politicizing health issues and using Taiwan issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs.” It adds: “Even forms of economic coercion are being put in place. Taiwan’s fruit, including the nation’s iconic pineapples, has been banned from Chinese markets, with the government saying harmful creatures could present a biosecurity risk to the country.”

The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.