Paul Dibb, in his recent Strategist post, writes that America’s strategic position in Asia would be fatally undermined if it didn’t go to war with China if China attacked Taiwan, and that Australia’s alliance with America would be fatally undermined if we didn’t then go to war with China too. The conclusion he draws is that, in the event of an unprovoked Chinese attack on Taiwan, America should go to war with China, and so should Australia.
On June 13, Panama switched diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC or Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China). Panama City and Beijing jointly announced that “the Government of the Republic of Panama recognizes that there is but one China in the world, that the Government of the PRC is the sole legal government representing the whole of China, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.” Panama’s defection should serve as a “wakeup call” for the present administration in Taipei. To be sure, something needs to change.
After learning of the loss of one of Taiwan’s oldest friends, officials in Taipei – including President Tsai Ing-wen – lashed out at Panama for its shocking “betrayal.” Authorities also blasted the PRC for “oppressing” Taiwan. Senior officials even went so far as to threaten that the Tsai administration would consider all of its options while rethinking relations with the Chinese mainland. Paradoxically, anti-China pundits based in Taiwan (and elsewhere) put a different spin on the diplomatic defection. Some argued that the loss of Panama didn’t matter, while others claimed that Beijing had returned to the practice of “checkbook diplomacy” (bribing small countries to switch diplomatic relations). But these interpretations fall short.
Ahead of the Donald Trump-Xi Jinping summit this week at Mar-a-Lago, Taiwan is understandably anxious. Trump’s ascendance to the American presidency has injected uncertainty into the U.S. approach to China and Taiwan — an element of foreign policy that is traditionally carefully calibrated to avoid upsetting the precarious cross-strait arrangement. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s unprecedented phone call with then-President -elect Trump in early December seemed to herald a new, more muscularly pro-Taiwan approach. This impression was subsequently belied by Trump’s suggestion that Taiwan could be traded away as part of a grand bargain with China. Speculation about Trump’s interest in upending this long-standing U.S. policy died down after the president affirmed his support for the “one China policy” in his first conversation with Xi. The next month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adopted China’s verbiage regarding a “new model of great power relations” during his trip to Beijing.
Whether and how Trump and Xi will address the one China policy remains to be seen. “We are preparing for every scenario,” one unnamed Taiwanese official told The Washington Post. Yet the underlying problem is clear. As Taiwan’s recently released Quadrennial Defense Review argues, Chinese military power is increasing at the same time as the new administration’s plans for “the United States’ Asia-Pacific strategic direction and troop deployment” remain uncertain. These shifting geopolitical currents come at the same time as growing strain between Taiwan and China. Beijing regards Tsai’s traditionally pro-independence political party as antagonistic to its interests and, since her inauguration last May, has undertaken a campaign of increased economic, political, and military pressure.
Roughly one year has passed since Tsai Ing-wen, presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a party supporting Taiwan’s de jure independence from China, was elected president of the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan). Throughout Taiwan’s 2015-16 election cycle, Tsai refused to endorse the “1992 Consensus,” an understanding whereby both sides agree that there is one China, but hold different interpretations as to what this means. The arrangement enabled Taipei and Beijing to move relations forward and reduce cross-strait tensions to an unprecedented level from 2008 to 2016. Rather than employ this approach, Tsai sidestepped the issue by claiming she supported the “status quo” and would handle relations with Beijing in accordance with “the will of the Taiwan people” and Taiwan’s constitution.
Following Tsai’s election, Beijing has slowly applied different measures to convince her administration to return to the “1992 Consensus.” In June, Beijing suspended all official contact with Taiwan. The Chinese government then cut the number of mainland tourists allowed to visit Taiwan, a move igniting protests by those dependent on the tourism industry. The island was also locked out of the 39th assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization. And Beijing began to accede to requests by Taipei’s few remaining diplomatic allies to switch recognition to Beijing (São Tomé and Príncipe dropped Taiwan in December). Perhaps most worrisome, however, are recent threats by China’s state-run media outlets and the military exercises in the waters surrounding Taiwan. How should Taiwan respond to these developments?
Taiwan issue underscores limits of power for the US and China – and the calcification of international policymaking
Since the 1940s, after Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the defeated Kuomintang retreated to Taipei, the Taiwan Strait has remained among the most intractable issues in international relations and a potential site for conflict in Asia. A brief phone call between the US President- elect Donald Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was a startling intervention in what’s become a warily balanced array of power relations sustained by arcane diplomatic formalisms.
The response from China, which maintains territorial claim to the island as sovereign territory, was relatively muted with more annoyance directed toward Taiwan. Immediate reaction elsewhere to the phone call included concerns about an escalation of the conflict for the entire region and the United States.