Untangling the China-Taiwan-US-Ukraine conundrum

Untangling the China-Taiwan-US-Ukraine conundrum
From left: US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nicolas Datiche / Pool | Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Zhang Ling / Xinjua)

Will China invade Taiwan? If so, what role will the US play? And how will Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fit into the equation?

The other day, while on his short, two-country trip to Asia, US President Joe Biden, in response to a reporter’s question about making explicit a promise to provide military support to Taiwan in the event it is attacked by China, basically said, “Yes indeed.” In general, the media’s response was fast, furious, and flabbergasting.  

Oh no, the hue and cry went up from many reporters and not a few analysts, this presidential answer was yet another astonishing gaffe from that ever-gaffe-prone president. It had shades of his comments about whether Vladimir Putin should be allowed to invade, pillage and destroy neighbouring nations — but worse.

It tore up the entire structure of the US-China relationship since 1979. Goodbye, that hallowed strategic ambiguity of the US’s relationship with Taiwan. Such a remark was certain to force the Chinese to push back even harder than in the past months against US statements. About the only thing that wasn’t said was, “Oh no! The sky really is falling!” 

But, was it really any of these? Or something rather different? Is it both a China issue as well as an outgrowth of the current hostilities in Ukraine? And, finally, is it really truly different from the president’s previously stated views about Taiwan’s circumstances?

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens argued, “The White House insists that President Biden did not break with longstanding policy when, at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday with the prime minister of Japan, he flatly answered ‘yes’ to the question, ‘Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?’

“Don’t believe the diplomatic spin that there’s nothing to see here. Don’t believe, either, that the president didn’t know what he was doing. What Biden said is dramatic — as well as prudent, necessary and strategically astute. He is demonstrating a sense of history, a sense of the moment and a sense that, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, new rules apply.

“American policy toward Taiwan for the past 43 years has been chiefly governed by two core, if somewhat ambiguous, agreements. The first, the One China policy, which Biden reaffirmed in Tokyo, is the basis for Washington’s diplomatic recognition of Beijing as the sole legal government of China. 

“The second, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, is the basis for our continued ties to Taiwan as a self-governing entity. But unlike the treaties the U.S. maintains with Japan and South Korea, the act does not oblige American forces to come to the island’s defense in the event of an attack — only that we will provide Taiwan with the weapons it needs to defend itself.” 

It aids in understanding the current complexities to get a historical perspective on the Taiwan issue. Taiwan, sometimes called Formosa in the past, is a sub-tropical but significantly mountainous island located off the southeastern coast of China. Over the centuries, it has come, successively, under the sway of indigenous (non-Han Chinese) populations, Chinese pirates, Portuguese then Dutch trader-colonialists, and then, eventually, 19th century Chinese Qing dynasty rulers, until the island was ceded to Japan as a consequence of the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War.  

In a burst of economic and commercial expansion, the Japanese created a commercial agricultural base on the island and built some significant infrastructure to turn the island into a successful commercial plantation colony. Along the way, Taiwan became something of a model for the later Japanese exploitation of Manchuria/Manchukuo in the 1930s and early 1940s, and then helped provide some of the inspirations for ideas that became the archetypical developmental state that Japan transformed itself into in the post-World War 2 era.

Meanwhile, the World War 2 peace settlement returned Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty in 1945, but with the collapse of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government in China by the late 1940s, the government evacuated itself to Taiwan as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai’s Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army were busy defeating the Kuomintang government. From the 1950s on through to the 1990s, Taiwan (aka the Republic of China) was ruled by an authoritarian clique composed of old Kuomintang stalwarts, but, crucially, was never ruled by the Chinese government in Beijing.

Nevertheless, by the turn of the 21st century, Taiwan was being transformed into an increasingly vibrant democratic society. Because China was one of the founders of the United Nations, the government in Taiwan had held on to the Security Council permanent membership seat for decades, until the Communist government in Beijing took over. That government, of course, controlled all of historical China, save for Taiwan and a few tiny islands located between Taiwan and the mainland.

Increasingly, too, Taiwan was losing its official diplomatic relations with most of the nations of the world, save for a few holdouts here and there, largely some of the smaller island nations of the Pacific and smaller nations in Latin America.

The Nixon visit

Then, in 1971-2, a sequence of visits by Americans, first by a ping-pong team engaged in some highly publicised sports diplomacy with China, then via Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s trip, and, then, eventually, President Richard Nixon’s official visit in 1972, constructed the basis for an increasingly official bilateral connection between the two powers. (It was Kissinger’s decision to nurture a strategic relationship with a China just emerging out of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution to be a counterweight to the Soviet Union, despite the hostilities still taking place in Vietnam — next to the Chinese border — that set the dynamics of US policy in Asia in motion for two generations.)

That diplomatic evolution resulted in several events. First was the establishment of full diplomatic ties between the US and China in 1979. As a consequence of that, there was the severing of formal diplomatic ties between the US and the government of Taiwan. In conjunction with that decision, there was the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act by the US Congress that would govern how the US would interact with Taiwan. That US legislation established an ostensibly non-governmental body to serve as a de facto, but officially non-governmental embassy. Concurrently, the US acknowledged there was only one Chinese government, although that legislation also stipulated the US reserved the right to sell defence material to the government on Taiwan so that it could continue to defend itself.

The question of whether the US would actually engage in hostilities to protect or defend a Taiwan that was coming under attack was left deliberately vague. It was a concept described as “strategic ambiguity”, or, effectively: we won’t say we will or we won’t, but probably best, (in effect, addressing Chinese leaders in Beijing), that you do not try to unite the island with the rest of China by force, because you won’t know for sure what might happen, should you try. 

Arising out of this new era, with China now under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping, the economy was placed on a more capitalist-oriented path and grew rapidly, albeit without political reforms. China gained membership of the World Trade Organization (with US support). Its exports of products from its ongoing, rapid industrialisation with high, middle and lower income nations alike grew by leaps and bounds. And it skilfully managed the 1997 rescission of Hong Kong from Britain with the agreed-upon concept of “one country, two systems”.  

Meanwhile, Taiwan was building an increasingly vigorous democratic political system. Simultaneously, it was becoming a major investor in Chinese industrial growth across the Taiwan Strait, as well as becoming the global centre for the manufacture of the most advanced types of microchips now crucial for all manner of consumer goods and services, as well as a growing range of industrial processes. The net result of all this economic activity was to knit both Taiwan and China ever more thoroughly into globalising supply chains.  

But, of course, the definitive political resolution of what, exactly, Taiwan’s formal political status is — or would become — or what its relationship with China would or could evolve into still remains unfinished and unresolved.

The possibility remains open that China might soon decide it is time to settle things once and for all militarily in pursuit of a formal resolution of this outstanding matter arising out of the 1948 revolution. If there is only one China, as the US officially agrees, perhaps, the thinking goes, it may now be time to make that a reality of the de jure political map.

In fact, especially in recent years, the Chinese military has engaged in a variety of close aircraft flybys and intrusions into Taiwan’s declared military aerial exclusion zone, and such flights have been increasing in number, frequency and the range of planes involved.

Meanwhile, given the Chinese buildup of forces and the construction of facilities on small, but strategic islands in the South China Sea, and a parallel assertion that those islands (and the surrounding economic zone) are Chinese territory, despite an adverse ruling by an international court, Taiwanese officials appear to be attuned to the possibility that the time for an actual Chinese assault on their island might be drawing nearer. Tacitly, the Chinese government has, however, hinted that such a move might only come in three to five years, but leaving the door open to just such a possibility.

As part of a broader response to Chinese strategic challenges, a variety of US strategic initiatives have been taking place as well.

Strategic alliances

In the past few days, the US president did a quick Asia tour to South Korea and Japan and met with South Korean, Japanese, Indian, and Australian leaders. India, Japan, the US and Australia are the four corners of the informal partnership the Quad, a grouping focusing on the rising presence and influence of China in the Indian Ocean/Pacific Ocean region, although without being an official alliance.

It also parallels the new US, Australian, and UK partnership for the region that has been taking shape. In neither case is Taiwan formally part of the groupings, but concerns about its and South Korea’s security circumstances — along with North Korea’s nuclear and missile technology ambitions — are clearly important elements of the strategic thinking for both groupings. 

Chinese officials focusing on their country’s security perspectives, meanwhile, would surely be seeing this activity in the context of their own continuing ambitions to bring to a conclusion that irritating anomaly of an independent island notionally part of the one and only China — but one upgrading its defence capabilities, and which now has a much more explicit statement of a US protective shield being reiterated. What the Chinese make of these actions and statements, and how they will relate to their longer-term intentions towards Taiwan, will be crucial to understand, even if they have yet to make a formal response to all of this relationship building, so far, at least. 

There may well be a more formal statement from a senior Chinese official in the coming days as that country’s foreign minister participates in talks with a number of Pacific island nations. Of course, all of the foregoing takes place amid concerns about global trade slowdowns, commodity scarcities and even recessions, flowing from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, China’s own economic growth has come down considerably from the peaks of recent levels. 

From the point of view of some nations of the Indian Ocean basin and some analysts in the US, there are concerns that an economically stressed Sri Lanka, deeply indebted to China, might even be forced to surrender control of a major port facility on that island that China had financed.

Meanwhile, in describing Chinese diplomatic outreach elsewhere, Reuters has noted, “China will seek a region-wide deal with almost a dozen Pacific island countries covering policing, security and data communication cooperation when Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosts a meeting in Fiji next week, documents seen by Reuters show. A draft communique and five-year action plan sent by China to 10 Pacific islands ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers on May 30 has prompted opposition from at least one of the invited nations, which says it showed China’s intent to control the region and ‘threatens regional stability.’ ” 

The question being framed from all these moves seems to be: which nation is most likely to be the most influential power in the region in the years ahead — the US with its partners, or China? 

Russian invasion

Given international circumstances, China’s posture vis-à-vis Taiwan is now being seen in the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. First, of course, is the idea that while the West — and especially the US — is preoccupied with the fighting in Ukraine, sooner rather than later could be the right time to make a move on Taiwan, regardless of the short-term costs economically and militarily that would ensue.  

Second, however, is the contrary idea that it could well be wiser to wait until that conflict is settled and when the US and Co are consumed with a massive rebuilding effort in Ukraine, regardless of the specifics of how the war ends and the fallout to fragile economies elsewhere. Opportunistically, China is in a prime position to exploit Russia’s increasingly desperate need to find sales for its oil and natural gas as the EU nations begin to move to cut such resource trade ties with Russia and as the stockpiles of oil and gas overwhelm Russian storage space.   

Third, though, is the thought that while the current circumstances on Taiwan may look unresolved and untidy, the net benefit to China in terms of the inflow of investment and intellectual property, as well as a sense of inevitability that Taiwan will come their way anyway, may well argue for a reluctance to upset the geopolitical applecart at this time.  

Finally, given the way Nato has come together over Ukraine and the unexpected fact that it is now gaining new members, perhaps embarking on a forceful push on Taiwan might provoke a similar reaction among various smaller nations such as many of the members of Asean — the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (Cambodia and Myanmar are economically deeply dependent on China and would be unlikely to move away from those connections, but other Asean members might well feel impelled to do so, such as the more economically robust, powerful nations of Indonesia and Malaysia.) 

Accordingly, the Chinese may still be in a strategic debate about what to do next about Taiwan, aware that a military solution could solve their major remaining territorial dispute, but similarly aware that the consequences of such a resolution could bring about the significant worsening of other circumstances. And all the while, they have been watching carefully how Vladimir Putin’s supposed “walk in the park” in his invasion of Ukraine has turned out so badly, so far.  

Thus, it is not clear where the Chinese are going to go, or what they will elect to do — the complex calculus for such a resolution still has so many possible repercussions. One thing is clear. Having waited since the late 1940s, they can afford to wait a while longer before deciding anything. DM


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  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Excellent review. The one thing we should have learnt from the Ukraine invasion is that Western rational can’t be used to predict the behaviour of those with different cultural or value backgrounds. The West was convinced that Rusdia would not attack because it was risky and potentially economically damaging, but it did. So don’t try to guess what the Chinese are thinking. The other thing is that unlike Russia , China is a super power and, short of a nuclear exchange, the US would not win against China, especially in its own back yard for logistical reasons alone.

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