It is worrying that Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has declared that he is preparing for the possibility of a conflict with China. In January this year, he said: “To me, 2027 is the year that we need to watch out for.” His statement came about as China stepped up military drills around the island to an extent that Taiwanese Defence Minister Chiu Kuocheng described as “abnormal”, warning also of the situation “getting out of hand”.
INews reports speak of dozens of Chinese fighter jets, drones, bombers and other aircraft, as well as warships and the Chinese aircraft carrier, the Shandong, having participated in recent military activities.
Cross-Straits tensions are not new, but the edges have been sharpened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. Till the last moment, hardly anyone believed that Russia would move into Ukraine, even when it amassed its troops on the border.
Many saw that act as merely the exertion of coercive pressure on Kyiv to stay out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), whose eastwards expansion Moscow viewed as a direct threat to its strategic integrity.
The fond belief was that since “postmodern” Europe had escaped from its “modern” period, in which wars had been a normal mechanism for settling conflicts, Russia would not transgress the boundaries of a European nation, which Ukraine eminently was.
Surely, the terrible lessons of two world wars in the 20th century, both of which had originated in Europe, would deter Moscow from testing the strategic frontiers of European peace, one underpinned by the military might of the US, the world’s predominant military and economic power. That was the thinking.
Well, it was foolish thinking. European history did not count in the end, the Americans did not matter, world sensitivities meant nothing, expected economic sanctions were factored into military planning, and the Russians moved into Ukraine.
A war of attrition between NATO and Russia followed, with Ukraine paying the price for choosing to come between two military giants.
There is no knowing when this war will end and how contrary to delusional Russian expectations of quick Ukrainian capitulation and equally laughable Western predictions of a Russian withdrawal as military morale withered, and the economy shattered in the face of an unwinnable war.
Taiwan occupies an analogous position in Asia. Indeed, even more than Ukraine, its existence as an entity separate from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reflects the unfinished business of the Second World War, when the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan after having lost to the Chinese Communist Party in the civil war that succeeded the global war.
The unfailing assistance of the America-led West, which was hostile to the PRC’s communist system, enabled authoritarian Taiwan to survive till the Sino-US rapprochement of 1972 threatened to cast it to the strategic wilds. However, the US hedged its bets by recognising Beijing as part of a One China policy but also retained its influence over the island through the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
There is nothing more strategic in peacetime than preparing for a rainy day, that is, the day when the skies could rain missiles. And that day is coming if it has not come already. The rapprochement between the US and China has disappeared into the waning lexical vocabulary of other terms, such as detente with the Soviet Union (which no longer exists).
Taiwan’s turn in the 1990s to what the West defines as democracy solidified the island’s claim to ultimate protection by the Western sphere even as China, having suppressed the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, moved on to consolidate what it called socialism with Chinese characteristics — a market economy presided over by a Leninist political system.Both real capitalists and genuine socialists would laugh nervously over the appearance of what an astute commentator termed “Market Leninism”, but the globalising West was content to live with that ideological anomaly so long as China did not threaten its interests. China is doing so now, and the West is busy trying to contain the very China whose contemporary rise it precipitated. Taiwan lies at the heart of that containment.
All this is not about some faded history. It is about how the immediate past draws the contours of the present.
The heart of the problem
At the heart of the problem lies the One China policy. There, indeed, is one China, but unfortunately, that single term has many interpretations.
Three interpretations define the problem. They are summarised by Singaporean scholar Chong Ja Ian in an article for the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. Beijing’s non-negotiable position, enshrined in its One China principle, asserts that Taiwan is part of a Chinese state represented by the PRC, as represented in this formulation: “There is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China.”
In contrast, “Taipei’s official position is that it is already independent as the Republic of China (Taiwan), whose jurisdiction covers Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, and other outlying islands”.
The US position
The US has a “one China policy”, which states that “Washington does not take a position on Taiwan’s sovereignty and merely ‘acknowledges’ the existence of a Chinese position even as Washington officially recognises the PRC as the government of China”. Hence, the US has “reserved the right to maintain unofficial relations with Taiwan as it sees fit.” It is, however, important to point out that the vast majority of nations accepted China as a member of the United Nations in place of Taiwan. That is very different from the situation where all members of the UN recognise Ukraine as a member of the world body.
Astonishingly, the US takes no official position on Taiwan’s sovereignty despite extending official diplomatic recognition to the PRC as the government of China.
Would Washington have ever acquiesced to a treaty with China in which Beijing would have agreed to diplomatic relations without taking a position on claims to sovereignty (had there been any) made by Hawaiians, Native Americans or Puerto Ricans?
Of course not. China went along with the strategic ambiguity embedded in the American policy of One China because Beijing needed Washington’s support in its ideological conflict with Moscow, a conflict in which the Taiwan issue was but an irritant.
Now, of course, the tables have turned. China’s economic and military rise to the second global position after the US makes it possible for Beijing to challenge Washington’s interpretation of One China. The US response reveals how the global hegemon is targetting (as it must) the weak points of its rival.
Taiwan is the weakest point of the Chinese chain of global supremacy that has produced domestic economic victories, political victories such as the suppression of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, and strategic victories in the form of the de facto capture of 90% of the South China Sea — an achievement that cannot be reversed short of war.
Taiwan would be a critical part of such a war, one waged between the US and China, much as Ukraine is hosting a proxy war between NATO and Russia. Taiwan does not need a war that would devastate it much more than Ukraine, whose size and strategic depth enable it to absorb the ferocity of Russian attacks while holding onto core territory.
The TRA has its uses, of course, not least when China flexes its muscles beyond American tolerance. In fact, America dispensed with strategic ambiguity in 1996 when Beijing intervened in Taiwan’s presidential election by conducting missile tests meant to influence the choice of Taiwanese voters. A show of strength by two US carrier groups dispatched to the region proved to deter any military adventurism, and the election proceeded.However, that was then, and this is now. Almost three decades later, China’s military strength has grown exponentially, and while America has reinforced its defence posture in the Indo-Pacific, it is not clear what form of deterrent American intervention would take except in all-out war.
No matter who wins that war, the Taiwanese would not. It behoves them, therefore, to be cautious and sustain their economic and political identity without crossing the line from autonomy to independence. Taiwan does not need war.
The writer is the founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award winning journalist and a graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Kissinger Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. The Board is chaired by the global statesman Dr Henry A. Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State and a Nobel Peace Prize Winner. This article reflects the writer’s personal views.