Washington runs the risk of inciting conflict between two nuclear power nations.
Today, East Asia is the scene of a sharp confrontation between two major nuclear powers – the United States and China. As the Americans prepare to limit Beijing, the situation only gets worse. Taiwan Strait is the key factor fueling tensions. In recent years, Washington has increased its supply of weapons and military equipment to the island, while assisting in revamping the armed forces of Taiwan and strongly encouraging the local government’s desire for independence.
Taiwan holds extremely important geopolitical significance for the US and China, representing part of the ‘first island chain’ stretching from the Aleutian Islands in the north through Japan and the Philippines, to the Greater Sunda Islands in the south. It is this ‘Pacific frontier’ that both Washington and Beijing have defined as their main line of defense. The politicians in power on Formosa (which means ‘beautiful’ in Portuguese and is a name that prevailed in Western cartography until the 20th century) in recent years have consistently pursued a policy of strengthening ties with the US, which is fully consistent with Washington’s anti-Chinese rhetoric.
The leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has repeatedly made it clear that actions violating the One-China policy are unacceptable. This also goes for the provisions of the three joint US-Chinese communiques of 1972-1982, which form the basis of the countries’ bilateral relations.
As the rhetoric emanating from the Chinese government becomes more aggressive, it has also become more belligerent in recent years. “the reunification of Taiwan with the motherland”Beijing has a vital national security concern that requires military force to protect.
The vague language of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act means that the US government avoids answering any questions about the existence of obligations to help the island. At the same time, there is no real readiness at different levels of the American political system and in the expemassnews.community to move from economic and geopolitical confrontation with China to open conflict.
A prime example of the chaos reigning in the American establishment with respect to China is perfectly illustrated by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s planned visit to Taiwan in August. The first reports about the potential trip to the island by America’s third highest office holder emerged in April 2022. The positive Covid-19 test allegedly prevented the visit from taking place. Though Pelosi’s office has not published an official confirmation or denial, the Financial Times reported that sources familiar with the situation say the speaker’s visit is almost a done deal this time. As NBC’s source later claimed, it stays unclear whether her Asia trip will include a stop on the island
It is interesting to note that in 1997, Newt Gingrich, the then-Speaker, visited Taiwan. This case however was different because he was representing the Republican Party which opposed the Democratic administration under Bill Clinton. Pelosi and Biden belong to the same party, so this trip would actually personify Washington’s official foreign policy line with a pronounced anti-Chinese character. Also, information about the speaker’s visit appeared after the Biden administration confirmed its fifth plan to sell weapons and equipment to Taipei, amid negotiations that are currently taking place between Taiwan’s government and former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
Beijing’s reaction to this unprecedented step was immediate. Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, stated that China opposes any official exchange between US officials and Taiwan. He also stressed that Congress is an integral component of America’s political system and that Congress must adhere to both the one-China principle as well as the contents of the joint Sino-American communiques. Beijing demanded that Washington cancel the trip, cease escalating tensions at the Taiwan Strait and stop supporting Taiwanese independence. China’s Foreign Ministry said that the US should continue on the current course. China must take tough and consistent measures to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Washington needs to be aware of all consequences.
The White House and Pentagon are probably not yet ready for long-term and unpredictable consequences in relations with the world’s second largest economy and navy. On July 21, President Biden said that senior US military officials do not consider Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan to be a good idea at the moment.
Be aware that Beijing doesn’t like Washington showing support for Taipei. When the possibility of Pelosi’s trip was first discussed in April, four Chinese Air Force planes entered the southwestern part of the island’s self-proclaimed air defense zone.
Emmanuel Bonn was contacted by Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, to complain that the US is continuing to follow a double standard on territorial integrity and sovereign state sovereignty issues, causing more instability in international relations. China considers US official visits to Taiwan provocations. This is a dangerous signal to the world, according to the minister.
This position was shown on different levels: US Representative Rick Larsen said that an official from the Chinese Embassy and China’s consul general in San Francisco demanded that he tell the speaker to call the trip off.
Leaders also had discussions about the issue. In a statement regarding a call between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, Chinese officials used strong language when mentioning Taiwan: “Those who play around with fire will be destroyed by it.” This is what it’s hoped the U.S. will see clearly.
The Global Times cites Chinese experts who believe Pelosi’s visit will have strategic consequences, because Beijing’s response should also be strategic, noting that the retaliatory actions that follow could be catastrophic for the US, which is currently experiencing economic difficulties. Lu Xiang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that Washington’s determination to send the speaker to Taiwan demonstrates that the American authorities want to test Beijing’s patience and set a new threshold for admissible foreign policy actions.
Military expert Song Zhongping said America’s Democratic Party is doing everything it can to improve its position ahead of the congressional mid-term election, which will be held in November, and this includes showing support for democracy on the island. Chinese journalist Hu Xijin has proposed sending combat aircraft to escort Pelosi’s flight to Taiwan and deploying an aircraft carrier in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing can destroy any threat targets on Taiwan if Taiwan opens fire. The US could also help if they were to.
It is possible that American analysts believe that Beijing’s response will be soft and symbolic, assuming that the Chinese Communist Party will want to avoid an unnecessary confrontation with the US before the 20th National Congress of the CPC, which is important for Xi Jinping personally. However, it is not possible to expect softness from Communists. Wang Yi, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, warned that the three communiques are inviolable at the G20 Summit, Bali. This should be interpreted unambiguously – as soon as Washington’s provocations go too far, bilateral ties with Beijing will be hopelessly damaged.
At the same time, the Chinese authorities are ready to go further in this case than they were during the ‘Taiwan crisis’ of 1996, when Beijing, Taipei, and Washington managed to reach a compromise. Wei Fenghe, the Chinese defense minister declared in a speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore this June that Beijing will use force to evict Taiwan from China.
The Economist called Taiwan in May 2021 “the most dangerous place on Earth.” According to the British publication, the constant maneuvers of Chinese warships around the island and the intrusion of aircraft into its ‘air defense zone’ are unequivocal evidence that preparations are being made for an imminent invasion, which can be expected as early as 2025. Real anti-Chinese fear has gained momentum since the Biden administration was elected. According to research by the Pew Center, up to 89% of the country’s adult population consider China a rival or an enemy, but not a friend, while every other respondent has extremely negative views on China.
In light of President Biden’s statement asserting America’s readiness to provide military assistance to the island in the event of an attack from the mainland, politicians and experts have urged Washington to change its official position on Taiwan, which has traditionally consisted of ‘strategic ambiguity’, to one with greater ‘strategic clarity’.
In January 2021, the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump released documents confirming Washington’s intention to protect Taipei in the event of aggression from the mainland. The ‘U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific’, originally subject to declassification only in 2042, suggests that the US should prevent China from gaining superiority at sea, and in the air, within the ‘first island chain’, while protecting all countries in the area, including Taiwan. Washington does not seem confused by Taiwan’s de facto status as an island.
However, any conflict between Washington and Beijing would not be a ‘small victorious war’ for either side. The PRC will continue to fight US forces in Asia-Pacific even if Taiwan is not captured quickly. On the other hand, even if the island is lost, the Pentagon won’t curtail its operations, because all of its previous efforts would be meaningless if it doesn’t neutralize the potential of the Chinese military. Foreign Affairs warned Washington and Beijing in December 2021 that any conflict over Taiwan would be disastrous for them and all East Asian countries. The main players could resort to nuclear weapons to alter the outcome if they were defeated.
China and the US have lots of space to talk about issues related to Iran and North Korea. Washington is not able to build productive relationships with China. However, if the White House does not stop threatening the PRC’s fundamental security interests, which undoubtedly include the ‘Taiwan issue’, Beijing will have no choice but to strengthen ties with countries that refuse to buckle to US hegemony and have suffered from its expansionist policies.
At the same time, China’s leadership, which has relied on building economic cooperation with other countries through the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as goodwill through humanitarian aid, now needs to intensify multilateral cooperation in the field of security in order to create a safe environment for the Middle Kingdom.