Taiwan | The next flashpoint in the U.S.-China contest

A planned visit from the US. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the self-ruled island has sparked an angry response from Beijing, raising tensions between the two countries.

A planned visit from the US. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the self-ruled island has sparked an angry response from Beijing, raising tensions between the two countries.

In a phone call on July 28, Chinese President Xi Jinping told US President Joe Biden “that those who play with fire will die,” referring to the Taiwan issue. “The fact and the status quo that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one and the same China” was “crystal clear,” he said, adding that China “firmly opposes separatist movements toward “independence from Taiwan.” ‘ and interference by external forces”.

His comments underlined how Taiwan has become the latest flashpoint in already tense US-China relations, with Beijing reacting angrily to a planned visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. If it continues over the next week when Ms. Pelosi travels to Asia, it would be the US’s highest visit to the island since 1997.

Coupled with recent comments from President Biden, who suggested the US had made a “commitment” to itself militarily if China attacked Taiwan – notes the White House later backed down and then clarified that there was no change in the already Long-standing US approach to “strategic ambiguity” that leaves this question unanswered — Ms. Pelosi’s planned visit only confirmed views in Beijing that the US was increasingly watering down its “one-China” policy.

Mr. Biden sought to dispel those perceptions in the phone call and “reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to our One China Policy” and “emphasized that United States policies have not changed.” At the same time, he also voiced US opposition “to unilateral changes in the status quo by both sides”.

Indeed, if China has grievances over recent US actions, both Washington and Taipei have seen China’s increasing military activity, such as frequent airstrikes in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and continued diplomatic pressure to isolate Taiwan internationally, which has led to the decline in the number of countries maintaining relations with Taiwan and many are switching to China as it destabilizes ties between the straits.

controversial island

The comments from the two leaders summed up the curious current dynamics over Taiwan. All three parties — China, the US and Taiwan — say they broadly support the current status quo. The problem is that one now sees the other as an attempt to change the status quo, with these already growing suspicions raised by Ms. Pelosi’s visit.

At the heart of the tensions is Taiwan’s unique position in this current status quo. Since the Kuomintang (KMT) Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949, Taiwan has been fully self-governing, evolving from a military dictatorship to a thriving democracy. Ties between the straits grew as the KMT took office, with a landmark economic cooperation agreement and an unprecedented meeting between Mr Xi and then-President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore in 2015.

After the KMT lost the 2016 elections to Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Tsai Ing-wen, who spoke more strongly about preserving Taiwan’s status and was re-elected in 2020 with an even higher share of the vote, the Tensions with Beijing increased. got up. China has accused her of seeking outright independence, although Ms Tsai has made it clear on numerous occasions that she only supports the status quo, a view shared by most people in Taiwan, incidentally, according to recent surveys.

For its part, President Tsai – China rejects the title of ‘president’ and considers Taiwan a ‘province’ – has accused China of trying, step by step, to change the status quo by isolating Taiwan internationally and conducting more aggressive military exercises. to feed. such as the ADIZ break-ins.

brewing crisis

When officials from the Biden administration and the US military have said they did not find the visit to Pelosi helpful in the current climate, the US has tried to make it clear to China that the president is repressing the actions of the Speaker of the House, another branch from the government. Chinese analysts have rejected that argument, mainly because both the president and the chairman are from the same party, although the visit seems to be driven more by Ms Pelosi’s leanings – she has taken a strong stance on Tibet and Hong Kong in her long political career – then a major shift in US policy.

What has increased tensions is the timing for the PLA to celebrate its 95th anniversary on August 1, and more importantly, Mr Xi will chair a party congress once every five years, likely in October. This poses a difficult balancing act for the Chinese leader between not appearing weak at home at a politically sensitive time, or taking action that could lead to an uncontrolled escalation.

Indeed, the US military has expressed concern about what steps China might take. China’s response could range from announcing military exercises near Taiwan to coincide with the visit, closing airspace or even a temporary naval blockade of Taiwan’s ports, moves that would lead to mounting tensions.

The longer term question hanging over the latest brewing crisis is the future of Taiwan. A Taipei government declaring outright independence — something both the KMT and DPP have so far shunned — is seen as a red line by Beijing analysts. Chinese analysts have been closely studying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not only as a warning of the challenges posed after the invasion, but also to assess the appetite for US intervention, whether Washington politics prefer boots on the ground. , or that the US, as in Ukraine, would limit itself to supplying weapons and ammunition.

The US, like India and most countries, does not maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan and follows a ‘One China Policy’. This goes back to establishing ties with the PRC in the wake of Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit in 1972. However, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 obliges Washington to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself. Arms sales to Taiwan are one of the most difficult issues in US-China relations.

Geopolitical quarrel

Increasingly drowned out in the geopolitical battle between China and the US, the question is what Taiwan’s 23 million residents want for themselves. Surveys show that more and more people are in favor of maintaining the status quo, and despite the close family ties to the mainland for many, fewer and fewer people support the idea of ​​unification. Ms Tsai said last year that Taiwan would oppose annexation. “We call for the status quo to be maintained, and we will do our utmost to prevent the status quo from being unilaterally changed,” she said, adding that “resolving disagreements between the two countries requires that the two sides of the strait engage in a dialogue about the basis of parity.”

She also highlighted Taiwan’s importance in supply chains, underlined by the global need for semiconductor chips, as well as its geopolitical importance. She specifically referred to the Quad – the India, Australia, US and Japan group – among those paying attention to the security situation in the Straits, saying that “the G7, NATO, the EU and the Quad all share the importance of peace. and safety have been emphasized. in the Taiwan Strait”.

But whether any of those parties would be inclined to intervene directly in a conflict is another question. For China, what it calls “reunification” remains the holy grail for the Chinese Communist Party and some analysts have speculated that Mr Xi would see it as its lasting legacy. Mr Xi, 69, will start a third five-year term this year and could remain at the helm for another ten years or more.

Few Chinese analysts expect a military venture in the near future, but the party has repeatedly made it clear that it does not rule out the use of force. China’s official White Paper on Taiwan states that it has “no commitment to exclude the use of force,” a position that still holds. This is in no way directed against Taiwanese compatriots, but against the plan to create an ‘independent Taiwan’ and against the foreign forces interfering in the reunification of China, and is intended as a necessary safeguard for the pursuit of peaceful reunification. said the spokesman. white paper says. “Recourse to violence,” it adds, “would only be the last choice made under coercive circumstances.”

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